Debate kicks off on sustainable consumption and production

The business community seems largely unaware that a new zone of environmental policy is emerging. At a recent seminar on sustainable consumption and production, environmental groups, academics and the Environment Agency urged the Government to introduce measures to reduce the consumption of products and resources. But the Government has yet to think seriously beyond the resource efficiency agenda.

The seminar, organised in November by the Institute of Public Policy Research and the Environment Agency, followed the publication of the Government's new sustainable consumption and production "framework".

The framework set out the rationale for SC&P. It said that the benefits of eco-efficiency - adding value to products while reducing the quantity of natural resources used to produce or use them - are being overwhelmed by growth in global resource consumption (ENDS Report 345, pp 22-26 ).

Much of the worst environmental degradation linked to global consumption is in developing countries but, with the exception of climate change, the framework dwelt on domestic environmental impacts, such as water quality.

Nor does the framework make it clear if its key objective - to decouple economic growth and environmental degradation - refers to relative decoupling, where the economy grows faster than the level of degradation, or the more ambitious aim of absolute decoupling, where the economy grows while the degradation level remains stable or decreases.

Even absolute decoupling, which could allow degradation to continue at current rates, falls well short of what environmental groups want - a reduction in resource consumption.

Addressing the seminar, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett failed to clarify whether the framework's goal refers to relative or absolute decoupling. She agreed with Friends of the Earth that "decoupling is not enough - we need to reduce our resource use so we are only using our 'fair share'" - but added that "we have to persuade people that this is compatible with a reasonable standard of living."

The Department of Trade and Industry seems wedded to the idea that eco-efficiency will do the job. Michael Massey, head of sustainable development, slapped down suggestions that legislation could have a role to play and said the DTI got "very mixed signals" about the usefulness of long-term goals. Instead, he argued that moving from products to services and making production more resource efficient was the way forward.

Business was barely visible at the event, suggesting that SC&P has yet to appear on the radar of even the most environmentally aware companies. Imperial College's Andrew Blaza, who chaired the seminar's workshop on businesses' role in the debate, said that even the pioneering companies which he works with "are nervous and looking for consensus on the direction they should go in."

While Mr Blaza started the business workshop with the comment that "the message 'consume less' is one we're not going to be able to sell," Environment Agency chairman Sir John Harman argued for politically unpalatable measures: "We need to do something about reducing consumption, reducing demand."

Even the concept of Factor Four - doubling wealth with innovations which halve resource consumption - will not, he said, achieve what needs to be done. Nonetheless, Factor Four remains so radical to the Government, ENDS understands, that it has pressed for its exclusion from the forthcoming EU thematic strategy on sustainable use of natural resources.

In contrast to the DTI, Sir John called for "long-term targets to give a clear signal to business and encourage investment" and "a different definition of wealth and well-being" instead of gross domestic product. He also stressed the need for a "dramatic" increase in resource efficiency, "perhaps by as much as a factor of ten."

Professor Peter Hennicke, president of the Wuppertal Institute, which produced a study of UK material flows for the Environment Department last year, agreed that "new models of wealth" are needed. Other requirements are the absolute decoupling of energy consumption and wealth, making products more durable and increasing the service intensity of goods.

However, with "50,000 hectares of forest lost every day and consumption running at 25% above the earth's carrying capacity...the time element is crucial. Things aren't moving fast enough," he warned.

Professor Hennicke added that a Wuppertal Institute study into material flows in the German economy found that "material and energy costs are much higher than labour costs. Labour productivity has improved significantly since the 1960s, but the big problem is that we have made people redundant instead of materials or energy."

Martin Gibson, director of the Government's Envirowise programme, said that "increasing GDP hasn't made us happier" even though advertisements for products such as cars are "all about dreams and reaching out for great things. Marketing executives realise it's the lifestyle gains people want, but continue to sell them products."

Rebecca Willis, director of environmental group Green Alliance, saw "a real political reluctance to grasp this agenda.... This Government, despite the way it dresses itself up, has a philosophy about economic growth that is very hard to reconcile with arguments about quality of life."

"We need a more nuanced and reflective debate between business and NGOs... There are enough progressive people in business prepared to look long term, whereas the trade bodies the Government talks to want to stick with the status quo."

The first opportunity for such businesses to learn more about sustainable consumption will come next year when the Sustainable Development Commission and the National Consumer Council, with Government support, establish a sustainable consumption roundtable to inform policy making.

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