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“Fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development” 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, Chapter III

In mid-May 2010 preparations will shift up a gear for the next World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to be held in Rio in 2012. Held every ten years, this is the seminal event on sustainability and will have huge implications for how governments address the way we produce and consume goods and services. The forthcoming preparatory discussions on this issue, together with wider debate at the UN’s Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) make May 2010 a crucial month for all those working to reduce the impact of how we consume.

At the last WSSD in 2002 there was universal recognition that unsustainable patterns of consumption have serious environmental and social impacts worldwide. There have been encouraging steps forward since, but they are not enough. Progress has been too slow and an outsider to this process could reasonably ask what has really been achieved in the last eight years, or indeed, since the first WSSD in 1992? This is a question that Consumers International (CI) believes needs to be center stage during these discussions in May.

CI would point to some progress in the implementation of the UN guidelines on sustainable consumption and production in response to this question. And, indeed, some country-led initiatives have been valuable in demonstrating concrete and actionable steps that can be taken. However it is equally clear that there is a lack of real innovation and (political) will in terms of implementation and development of progressive policies.

The inconvenient fact is that the globalised marketplace in 2010 is still based on increasing consumption (no matter the kind of consumption) as a means to achieving economic growth. The consequences of what proponents of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) see as an outmoded approach to consumption will become increasingly serious if they are not understood and addressed. This means tackling financial, economic, technological, ideological, cultural and cognitive obstacles.

What does all this mean from the consumer/citizen point of view? For Consumers International, sustainable consumption is about citizens taking responsibility as consumers for the impact of the goods and services they purchase. It is about consuming in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way – for current and future generations. Essential to this is a comprehensive set of policies ranging from basic consumer protection - such as full and fair information about products and services - to policies that ensure fair and sustainable access to consumption in areas such as energy, water, transport and health care.

It should be noted that this does not merely translate into less consumption but rather fairer, less resource intensive consumption. This need is already apparent in most developed countries, with varying degrees of public awareness. Developing countries have the opportunity to avoid many of the problems associated with Western-style consumption by addressing sustainability now in ways that are consistent with development needs. This will help promote a development path with an emphasis on fairness, environmental protection and social and intergenerational equity. From a consumer rights point of view, this is crucial in the fight for universal access to the satisfaction of basic needs.

In order to successfully make the transition to more sustainable consumption and production patterns, it needs to be recognised that SCP is not only a technical or economic issue. Rather, methods of consumption have deep roots in the social and cultural context of a society. Taking this systems approach to mapping values in sustainable consumption should include key stakeholders, particularly consumers, governments, civil society organisations, workers and industry.

The global focus on SCP in May’s discussions at the UN is an indication of the growing concerns about the need to change the course of unsustainable growth. However, disagreements on priorities for development, consumer apathy, regional and cultural differences, poverty and low political will are all major challenges to securing a new model of consumption.

The big question is whether the governments have the courage and political will to move this agenda forward. They will need to take difficult decisions to enable the mainstreaming of SCP. But Consumers International believe they can do this if they approach SCP as integral to development based on poverty reduction, social fairness, green growth and global and intergenerational equity.

The next WSSD in 2012 will need to produce an ambitious, clear and actionable framework of programmes on sustainable consumption. Governments need to start that planning now.

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