Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I learned at the sustainable consumption conference

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director

Courtesy of Patagonia
Last week I attended an academic conference on sustainable consumption at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

I have spent the last 10 years working upstream, in the field of sustainable production, studying and pushing for producer-focused policies such as extended producer responsibility.

To be honest, I have tended to view "sustainable consumption," with its emphasis on voluntary, individual behavioral change, as too soft a path to have a meaningful impact on the destructive forces that threaten us. I went to the conference to get out of my comfort zone and to learn what is happening in a related field.

What I heard at the conference were many ideas about source reduction, which is a major challenge for those of us working to incent and restrain corporations to be more sustainable.  I felt encouraged to be among creative and smart people grappling with this issue.

My take-away from the conference is that Product Policy Institute's (PPI) original three-part mission of sustainable production and consumption and good governance is the correct frame for addressing the myriad interconnected problems facing us. It's a three legged stool. 

Sustainable production – We view a root cause of our throwaway society as the production system based on high throughput of globally sourced cheap products, and the disconnect between those who design and market goods and those who clean up after them.  PPI has focused on implementing policies that make producers legally responsible for the life-cycle impacts of their products.  The theory is to harness the power of the markets, within legally mandated boundaries, to drive the production of more durable and less toxic products.  It’s an important piece, but not the whole story.

Sustainable consumption – The sustainable consumption frame opens the door to thinking about growth assumptions underlying the business models of powerful global manufacturers and retailers producing and selling ever increasing quantities of cheap globally-sourced, low-margin goods.  The book Eco-Business by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister makes the case that the core corporate interest is growth. Corporate environmental and social strategies have been increasingly used as business strategies to protect raw material supplies and gain advantage over competitors, all for the purpose of selling more stuff.  The sustainable consumption frame asks questions about unlimited growth.  If an absolute decrease in material and energy throughput is necessary to restore ecological health and stability as well as human happiness, then we need to address unlimited growth.  Reduction and reuse are radical agendas; helping producers make and sell more efficient products may be worthwhile but it is unlikely to lead to transformative outcomes.

Good governance -- The third leg of the stool is the hard one.  But it's crucial for addressing both unsustainable production and consumption. Governments and NGOs have so little power relative to multi-national business giants that we resign ourselves to working with corporations on incremental gains in a world desperate for deep transformational change. Unlimited corporate growth based on high throughput of globally sourced cheap products is not in the public’s or the planet’s interest. Intervention by government and civil society is needed to achieve outcomes in the public interest.  

1 comment:

  1. This is a timely gathering of these three messages, Bill, especially at this moment when we see product stewardship programs rolled out for packaging. It will take creative public policy to hold producers to a higher standard in packaging stewardship that delivers real results. It's not good enough to cast a huge curbside collection net and ship "low-margin" recyclables out of the country.


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