Consuming with care: The why and how

07 Jun 2015

This year's World Environment Day theme urges global citizens to live with, and be happy with, less. Can we make it work?

As Environment Day themes go, saving the oceans or the rainforests were easier, non-controversial and devoid of dilemma. No one contested their appropriateness and many championed their cause. Yes, oceans and rainforests are the last bastions of nature and certainly should be saved.

There is an innate ambiguity underlined with economic confusion around this year’s theme for World Environment Day. Consume with care. Consume with responsibility. A deceptively simple and catchy theme that underscores a deep and fundamental chasm in our society. A dilemma that regularly pits growth-focused economists and GDP-obsessed politicians against those who believe in a different, softer, humanistic model of development. A model that upholds rights and capabilities (abilities) over income and purchasing power. A model that prescribes a different set of values to define human progress and well-being than those currently touted by the system that drives many of our economies.

For years we were told that consuming more is the only way to make markets work and create jobs and keep the wheels of the economic machinery well oiled. This generation has grown up seeing the collapse of communist and socialist systems that were dominant in the 1970s and believing blindly the theories around competitive market economy. Consumerism holds almost-religious sway in many developed and now fast-developing countries. In fact, in many advanced cultures gadgets, fashion and technology trends have replaced many aspects of religion and spirituality. The burgeoning middle classes of countries like India, China and even Sri Lanka are not far from that mark either. In the face of unbridled pressure to buy more, use more, throw more (so you can buy more) and increased affordability and sanction of such irresponsible actions by banks, retailers and credit cards; we have our backs up against the wall. Consume or else… consume or the markets will contract, the economy will shrink, the banks will teeter and the result will not be pretty.

Way back in the 1970s, even as the market economy was in merry swing, environmentalists were warning against ‘natural limits to growth’ and that planetary boundaries confined the scope and space for unbridled growth. As a colleague from India once put it- “A billion and half of us can’t all aspire to live like Americans. The earth is just not big enough!” So consuming with care has a definite conceptual birth in the environmental lobby that gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s, which highlighted that environmental goods and man’s economic progress are intrinsically linked.

In 1987 the monumental work of the Brundtland Commission brought forth the first definition of sustainability of development. In the ensuing publication “Our Common Future” the Commission argued that human progress is not economic alone. Social justice portrayed by equality, human rights and well-being of people and the protection of the earth’s natural resources that sustain life are both equally important as development indicators. The underlying principle is inter-generational equity: that the earth’s finite resources should be used responsibly and saved for future generations.

In more recent times, we see countries attempting to define and measure progress in very unconventional ways. Bhutan’s King proposed the Happiness Index where income played a minor role in defining quality of life. The King of Thailand moots the idea of a ‘sufficiency economy’ and developing a national or local benchmark for prosperity instead of aping Western standards and lifestyles. So consuming with care or the practice of sustainable consumption and production is rooted in the idea that progress is a lot more unbridled consumerism- that human happiness and well-being is not measured by ‘the ability to consume’ or purchasing power of a household.

Beyond the theory, this year’s slogan places the burden of practice on every one of us. At some level, we are all guilty of living or aspiring to live beyond the earth’s capacity. The United Nations Environmental Programme has a bundle of tools and techniques that can be applied by manufacturing industries, government regulators and auditors to put to practice ‘sustainability’ of production and consumption. Life cycle analysis, circular economy, ecological footprint (and allied to it carbon and water footprint analysis), sustainable and efficient buildings are some more commonly used tools in ensuring we account for the full cost of earth’s resources going in producing a good and its final disposal.

The private sector has been quick to uptake sustainability standards to the extent possible. Corporate social and environmental responsibility fortunately, is much more than a buzz word for the private sector, even in Sri Lanka. Sustainability reporting and market advantages for ‘sustainably and responsibly’ produced goods have increased the penetration of practices that were relatively ‘unheard of’ two decades ago. All these adjustments ensure that markets keep running and the wheels of commerce grind on. Incremental changes to make the dominant model for development more responsible; but not directly tackling the fundamental issue of how we perceive prosperity.

The UN’s new global agenda for development called the ‘sustainable development goals’ or SDGs have tried to bridge the chasm. The SDGs arose out of the embers of the third summit for Sustainable Development (Rio, 2012) with the promise that economic progress and environmental issues would no longer be de-coupled and treated as different issues. It is an ambitious agenda with 17 different goals, as many as nine of them dealing with environmental issues. Sustainable Consumption and Production is Goal No. 12 and it interestingly targets the prudent use of natural resources, reducing food waste, managing chemical wastes from contaminating soil and water, reducing garbage and thus the need for landfills and incineration. There is a huge focus on private sector adoption of good environmental and social practices and the education of the younger generation on sustainable lifestyles.

The real challenge ‘consume with care’ is thrown at each citizen coming in to the middle class in every developing and middle-income country. That is us. Changing our lifestyles and value system against the universally accepted, very Western model of ‘consume or die’ is hard and daunting. For many of us who have tried it in some form or another, it is analogous to swimming upstream amidst rapids. The critical mass of support for such a drastic change in lifestyle has not evolved. Developing country middle-classes feel the need to have a go at Western-style prosperity before deciding if the fit is right. Therefore many believers and campaigners of ‘consume with care’ find themselves being swept along the tide of purchasing power as countries and communities prosper.

In Sri Lanka, the ‘consume with care’ campaign has to begin with waste. It is common knowledge that the most daunting middle class environmental, social and health issues boils down to waste- the way in which we use and dispose of consumables. We have moved gradually from a ‘sufficiency-type’ of circular economy that existed before the advent of plastics and before food was available aplenty. Our grandmothers were queens of recycling- food, paper, string, boxes, tins and anything else. Remnants of this lifestyle still linger in rural corners of the country and in households still influenced by the wisdom of the old. But to a large extent, from our detached single family homes to the shiny new cars to imported, packaged food we have far left behind that age of responsible consumption.

Sri Lanka uses much of its arable land for cultivation of food. Agriculture is the mainstay of the rural economy. But we use our land poorly and shortsightedly -soaking our soils with chemicals to control weeds and hasten crop growth, we expose land to rain and intense sun, eroding it and decimating its capacity to sustain life. The food we coax out of this land, with such harsh practices, then largely ends up in dumps as crop spoilage or food waste. The waste volumes are beyond the capacity of local authorities to manage. Food and plastics and all kinds of other waste end up in marshes and waterways across the county. The suburban middle class worries little about the land and that the food they waste has come at an enormous cost to the environment. The price is simply a reflection of seasonal inputs, labour and transport. If cost to the environment was factored in to the price of food, we would not be able to afford a single potato from Nuwara Eliya much less throw them in the garbage. Think about that when you next take out the trash.