Sustainability is responsibility of consumers

UK consumers need to take more responsibility for ensuring that their consumption patterns are more sustainable, and should end the ‘supermarket mentality’, says a new report.

According to the 1992 Rio declaration, sustainable development and a higher quality of life can only be achieved if nations reduce or even eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. With this in mind, the organisation responsible for much of the UK’s preparation for the World Summit that ended in Johannesburg last week, the Stakeholder Forum, has published It’s Your Choice!, the result of a series of consultations with civil society on ensuring sustainable consumption.

The report investigates six areas for cutting consumption and production: food and drink, domestic goods, tourism, travel, water and energy.

Although there is very little interest or awareness of sustainable consumption issues, there is a general frustration among the public at the lack of unbiased and valid information that would allow informed purchasing decisions, says the report.

“We have reached the point in the UK, if not elsewhere, where the population has been persuaded to adopt a ‘supermarket mentality’ – we can have what we want, when we want it as long as we can afford to pay for it,” says co-author and advisor to the Stakeholder Forum Andrew Blaza of Imperial College, London.

“But this is just not sustainable,” he says. “Yet to exhort people to ‘give up’, to ‘make sacrifices’, is completely the wrong approach unless we give them real alternatives and the right information to help them make choices.”

The best approach is to talk to consumers about consuming ‘differently’ rather than less, Blaza says. “We have singularly failed since Rio to help people make links between their own actions and the local and global environmental and social changes which are taking place. Until we do help people to make those links, using language which they understand, and then back this up with really practical actions which can be taken readily by everyone, we will still be talking about failure again in ten years time, if not before.”

The report’s recommendations include:

  • for food – re-introducing education about food and food production in schools and government support for farmers’ markets;
  • for domestic goods – retailers could give extra ‘reward points’ to customers who buy sustainable products, and local councils could grant tax rebates for environmental improvements;
  • for water – a review of water industry regulators OFWAT, the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, as there is currently potential for conflict between the three; and
  • for energy – targeting property leasing companies to increase energy conservation in their buildings.

Recently the Government has come under fire for its lack of commitment to sustainable development (see related story and related story). However, maybe the lack of political will has occurred because political leaders do not perceive a real signal from the electorate over sustainability, says the report.

Now that the report has been published, the next stage of the project – to develop a source of easily accessible information to demonstrate UK progress towards sustainable production and consumption – has begun. The project will run over two further years, and is being funded by Biffaward and Marks & Spencer.

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