Sustainable development and consumers a perspective from the Netherlands

The Dutch Government intends to place a new emphasis on the role which consumers will have to play in putting the Netherlands onto the path of sustainable development when it publishes a revised version of its national environmental plan later this year. A study commissioned from Environmental Resources Management (ERM) has outlined how lifestyle changes could help to reverse the present unsustainable trends in consumption of goods and services - and suggested how social marketing techniques could be used to persuade consumers to change established behaviour and aspirations without reducing quality of life.1

Households, according to ERM's report, make a sizeable direct contribution to the Netherlands' environmental problems - and many of the trends are going the wrong way. Domestic fuel consumption contributes 14% of the country's carbon dioxide emissions, and gas and electricity consumption per capita is rising. The use of private vehicles, which has increased by 20% since 1980, contributes another 20%, as well as being the single largest source of nitrogen oxides.

Adverse trends
Households are the largest consumers of water, using 665 million cubic metres per year compared to industry's 507 million m3. Water consumption has almost doubled since 1960, and is projected to grow by 15% per year.

Household waste generation has also been rising steadily, increasing by 46% to reach 410 kilos per capita in 1990, one of the highest rates in Europe. Meanwhile, high consumption of meat and dairy products encourages intensive livestock farming, which is a major source of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide - all greenhouse gases - and generates 15 million tonnes of manure annually, creating severe acidification and waste management problems.

These and other indicators pose a severe challenge to a Government committed to achieving sustainable development within a generation - and it is now beginning to respond.

Long-term environment plan
The Dutch Government began to develop its sustainable development strategy in 1990, with its first revision of the 1989 National Environmental Policy Plan (NEPP). In broad terms, it decided to select those sectors of society which had been shown to be large contributors to the country's environmental problems and to set improvement targets for each of them. These were calculated to ensure that the overall environmental objectives defined in the NEPP would be met. The baseline for the exercise was 1985, and the target date was set at 2010.

For industry, the Government opted for a combination of legislation and pioneering, quasi-voluntary covenants with individual sectors. The basic metals industry and, more recently, the chemical industry (see pp 16-19 ) were among the first to enter into these agreements.

But the Government is acutely aware that tackling the production side of the equation will not be enough. Consumers will also have to be encouraged to recognise and accept their own contribution to environmental deterioration and the need to change their patterns of demand for products and services.

The new national environmental policy plan, NEPP 2, will map out the strategic priorities and policies for the next four years which are needed to keep the Government and the various sectors on course towards the overall objective. A key priority will be the role of consumers.

Focus on lifestyles
Early in 1992, the Department of Strategic Planning within the Government's Directorate-General for the Environment began thinking about how consumers could be brought into the country's sustainable development strategy.

The potential pitfalls were evident. Unlike industrial sectors, consumers are not organised into representative groups with which the Government can negotiate, and they do not have uniform aspirations. The opinions of environment and development groups, while important, could not be assumed to represent the thinking of all Dutch citizens. But the Government perceived that one of the greatest dangers would be if people felt that it was imposing alternative lifestyles upon them because this would arouse suspicion rather than co-operation.

The thinking that emerged was that citizens should be encouraged to aim for a lifestyle that made less of an impact on the environment but "without going back to the 1950s", as an official at the Department put it. It was felt that the Government could influence, but not dictate, this process by two means: it could employ the traditional methods of education and social marketing through various media to suggest alternative lifestyles; and it could enlist the support of intermediaries to act as links between Government and the people.

Role for intermediaries
Potential intermediaries that have been identified include utilities such as energy and water suppliers, waste disposal companies, employer federations and trade unions, as well as environmental groups. Erik Brandsma of the Department of Strategic Planning told ENDS that "our main focus is to create a momentum for discussion about consumption patterns and lifestyles within society and we need intermediaries to do that - to start a discussion about what the actual priorities of their lifestyles are and what their environmental priorities are and how they might be combined."

Mr Brandsma stresses that the Government does not intend to push itself forward in this debate. He said: "It has to be a debate in which society says to Government: 'When we look at our consumption patterns we see that we can make improvements here and there. Would that represent a fundamental change? Will it have any effect on the environmental effect that consumers have?'" It will then be for consumers to signal to the Government how the process of change should be facilitated, for example, by providing more information, changing the fiscal system, or financing infrastructural measures.

He acknowledges that at some time in the future consumers may well conclude that the only way they can reduce certain impacts on the environment will be to reduce consumption of some products, but the immediate process has to be one of gradual change. However, he is certain of one thing: that the role of manufacturers of household goods in helping to shape consumption patterns and quantities "will become more and more important in the future."

Principles for sustainability
That conclusion is reinforced by ERM's report. After outlining the present environmental impacts of Dutch households, the report then speculates how these might be reduced by applying four principles of lifestyle change:

  • Rationalise access: This is the process of reducing inefficiencies in the way that people, goods and services are brought together, for example, by increasing bulk distribution of goods to individual households.

  • Act communally: The long-term trend in Dutch and other western societies has been towards greater privacy and individual ownership. This has resulted in growth in the number of households in the Netherlands while its population has remained static, and brought with it growth in the number of appliances, cars and other products required to serve the same number of people. However, ERM points out, some communal activities remain popular, and this could be built upon to the improve the efficiency of resource consumption.

  • Circulate goods: Resources are squandered and environmental impacts increased when consumer products and their packaging are replaced at frequent intervals. There is great potential, ERM believes, to reduce resource waste by establishing product repair and exchange services to keep goods in circulation.

  • Buy services, not products: This principle is based on harnessing economies of scale. Household chores such as washing clothes and decorating could be contracted out, cutting the demand for products and consumption of resources involved in do-it-yourself lifestyles.

    Green filter
    The report emphasises that the principles can only be applied if they are preceded by an underlying change in society's attitude towards the environment. The aim should be to encourage citizens to develop a "green quality filter" which will influence their day-to-day decisions in much the same way as they have become accustomed to applying judgements based on financial, legal, social and health criteria. The Government has a role to play here through information dissemination, financial incentives, regulation, and stimulating debate with non-governmental organisations to achieve changes in personal aspirations.

    When the principles are applied they result in some interesting scenarios. The consultancy has been commissioned to quantify some of these and a second report is due to be completed before the end of this year.

    Sustainable washing
    A classic example of the way in which burdens on the environment have been increased by trends in the number of house-holds, the growing emphasis on do-it-yourself activities, and individual ownership of appliances is provided by washing machines. ERM's report outlines how washing clothes might be done in a more sustainable society:

    "Your family generates enough laundry for four full loads per week. You call your local HomeWash Service and order collections for 8.00-8.30am on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Delivery of perfectly washed, fresh air dried and pressed clothes will always be by mid-afternoon of the same day or in the evening if requested. Payment will be by monthly credit account, with adjustments made automatically for more/fewer services. Customers will be given one week's free service in compensation for a single failure to collect/ deliver on time. You sign a contract."

    In this scenario, it would make financial sense for the HomeWash Service to invest in the most energyand water-efficient appliances available. Appliance manufacturers would stand to lose some income, but ERM suggests that this could be offset if they were "encouraged to establish the service companies, equip them with their own machines and retrain their employees to run the businesses."

    Repair and reuse
    Reducing household waste generation and resource consumption could also be achieved if products were designed for durability, reparability and reusability. ERM's report outlines how these properties might be put to good use.

    "Repair centres would be established in every supermarket and every department store to serve as drop-off points for any portable product. They would be staffed by one store assistant who would have computer access to a repair and maintenance database. This would contain all details necessary to identify the product, the manufacturer and where it should be sent for repair. The most common faults would also be listed along with a guide as to likely cost. All new products would be labelled with the manufacturer's name."

    Personal transport, the report goes on to suggest, "is one of the greatest privileges of modern society. It also involves an industry that is currently vital to western economies, and a consumer product that is one of our most highly prized, expensive and psychologically important possessions. Successful loosening of our dependence on the motor car will depend not only on controlling measures in the short to medium term, but on finding completely new ways of achieving access."

    Possible lifestyle changes that would lessen dependence on the private car include a move to working from home, more networking of computer systems within companies, and selling through video catalogues. Computer-link shopping, enabling consumers to make their routine purchases by means of a link between their televisions and local supermarkets and to have goods delivered at set times, is another emerging possibility.

    Targets for individuals
    Another suggestion put forward by ERM was that individuals' minds could be focussed on their own contribution to environmental damage by setting targets for the individual linked to the overall environmental objectives defined in the NEPP (see table ). However, this idea appears not to have found favour with the Government on the grounds that it comes too close to dictating the lifestyles that people should lead.

    The general response to the ERM study is said to have been that it was a thought-provoking exercise, although some have criticised it for its "yuppy" tendencies and for failing to take into account people on lower incomes. However, the important point is that the Dutch Government has the vision to appreciate that putting the country on the road to sustainable development will require more than run-of-the-mill environmental policies, and will mean a sustained effort to provoke self-questioning about the most fundamental aspects of individual behaviour.

    ERM was not asked to quantify the environmental benefits which might be attained in any of its scenarios. This is now being done in a second study due to be completed later this year.

    It remains to be seen whether changes in consumer behaviour of the kind likely to be achieved by attempting to modify personal aspirations will be sufficient to achieve the Netherlands' long-term environmental objectives. Some painful choices for both Government and individuals may be in the offing, ERM suggests, if sustainability proves to require reduced overall levels of consumption.

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