Moving towards a more sustainable production and consumption pattern

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro led to the adoption of Agenda 21-also known as the blueprint for sustainable development-by more than 178 governments. Agenda 21 stated that "the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialised countries," (Section I, Chapter 4.3). Additionally, it defined the need for governments "to develop a domestic policy framework that will encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption," (Chapter 4.17).

Now, 23 years later, the theme of this year's World Environment Day (June 5) is resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production (SCP) in the context of the planet's regenerative capacity, as captured in the slogan "Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care".

The current population of the world is 7 billion; it is estimated reach around 8.4 billion by the year 2030. This growth has been accompanied by increased urbanisation along with lengthening and increasingly global supply chains characterised by mass production and consumption of an ever-wider range of goods and services. The resource-intensive unsustainable lifestyles which were the norm in developed nations are increasingly being imitated by the fast growing middle class in emerging economies.

While there has been rapid and sustained economic growth across geographies, lifting many out of poverty, there has also been great damage to the environment, and many people have been left behind. This raises questions on our current models of economic growth and if they are working for the poorest or the planet or neither. Indeed, the benefits of rapid economic growth and expanding consumption have not been evenly distributed and inequality has seen a rise both within nations and across nations.

SCP includes improvements in the efficiency with which we use natural resources such as fertile land, freshwater, fisheries and biomass, from the point where they are first grown or extracted through to the way consumers use and dispose of the products made from them. It focuses on reductions in pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from production and consumption. The move towards SCP will require not just actions such as producing and buying energy-efficient light bulbs or fuel-efficient cars, but a whole social movement that changes the attitudes of people towards how and what they consume.

The World Environment Day should be looked at as an opportunity to identify solutions for re-engineering our consumer culture to create a sustainable society in which everyone has enough while staying within the planet's regenerative capacity. Currently, according to a recent research, we have already crossed four out of the nine “planetary boundaries”—extinction rate, deforestation, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertiliser) into the ocean (Steffen et al, 2015, Science magazine).

Business-as-usual is no longer an option. It is time to seriously look at what our dreams may be costing the planet, our health, our future, and the future of our children. It is time to recognise the need to reshape demand by making sustainable consumption more personal and relevant for consumers, leveraging technical innovations that can drive engagement and transparency, and redesigning products and services improving their resource use efficiency. Further, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the accompanying targets and indicators which will define the Post-2015 Development Agenda must contribute clearly and actively to this global shift to SCP. In addition to being people-centred and universal, they need to reach the hearts and minds of people, encouraging them to bring their consumption patterns to a level and shape that fulfils their dreams, without leading to catastrophic damage of our planet.

Scientific knowledge could help enhance the availability of estimates on environmental implications of our consumption patterns such as carbon, water, land and materials footprints of our consumption patterns, comparing them with estimates of what level of sustainable global per capita consumption these natural resources could supply for the entire human population, with everyone entitled to a fair share. This could be used to make people aware of their consumption implications. One of the available estimates by the Global Footprint Network shows that our global footprint is about one and a half times the Earth's total area of land and sea, which implies that to sustain us in the long-term we would need one and a half planets. This certainly is not sustainable and calls for urgent action, a call which we all must heed to at the earliest.