Consuming and producing sustainably

Date: 24 Oct 2016

Read the analyse written by Lucien Chason and Stéphanie Leyronas on the issue, the interviews with Christophe Bonneuil and Homi Kharas, look our maps and data and explore our archives on the theme.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit on Environment and Development paved the way for collective research on sustainability, specifically by recommending the elimination of unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Once the issue had been raised, the solutions considered very rapidly focused on technical innovations capable of limiting the carbon footprint of our production methods. This is already an extremely complex issue: what may appear as an effective policy in one field may have harmful effects in another. The different ways of exploiting water and land for example impose constraint on other resources. The expansion of the agrofuel offer may contribute to increased pressure on land or water. Countries attempting to ensure food and energy security have also acquired land abroad to the detriment of existing local communities. Technological solutions often lead to dead-ends if they are not supported by socio-economic guidance. Lastly, improving the usage efficiency of resources (e.g. reducing water loss in irrigation or reducing the energy required per unit of product in industrial processes) may have a rebound effect whereby an industrial activity is made more profitable thus encouraging an increase in production, leading to an increase in resource pressure despite the efficiency gain.

At the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, the United Nations expressed their support for this agenda with an action programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) called the « 10 year Framework Program (10YFP) ». According to the definition retained, SCP is "the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of further generations. As part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 10YFP is based on five components: education and lifestyles; sustainable construction and buildings; sustainable tourism; consumer information; and sustainable public procurement. Countries are invited to establish adequate participatory structures and to develop intervention strategies. In 2015, the United Nations commitment on this issue resulted in the adoption of the SGD12 which sets more or less precise goals, including on innovative subjects such as a 50% reduction of food waste by 2030.

Twenty years after Rio, the approach to the issue is therefore centred less on the management of the scarcity of resources than on a sobriety of production and consumption cycles, particularly in terms of energy and agriculture. How can discussions on this issue, which directly challenges the evolution of production channels, make responsible consumption methods more accessible to individual consumers? The debate seems to have shifted from the search for technological solutions to one for a panel of social, economic and political tools. So it is therefore currently relevant to launch into an analysis of the policies implemented at national level to achieve these broad sustainable production and consumption goals. A major part of this exploration should be left to case studies and evidence from policy implementation both in the Global North and the Global South to find examples of pioneering examples and noteworthy successes. Challenging the sustainability of production and consumption patterns in the North and the South also opens the way to profound questions about society. The first of these questions relates to the rapidly growing middle-class populations in emerging and developing countries and their expectations: how can we reconcile the two objectives of improving both living conditions and the sustainability of consumption and production patterns?