What strategies can be deployed to foster sustainable consumption in, with and by Germany? This question was addressed at a workshop organized and hosted by the Science Platform Sustainability 2030 (SPS2030) on 13–14. June in Berlin. Representatives from science, policymaking, and the field shared their expertise with participants and discussed the preliminary recommendations for policymakers developed by the SPS2030 working group on sustainable consumption.
“The 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides the international community with a sound framework to promote sustainable consumption worldwide”, emphasised Joachim von Braun, the working group lead. “It is clear that a range of actors in policymaking, business, civil society and science are all putting their weight behind efforts to achieve these goals. Concrete initiatives have proven their ability to guide consumers towards more sustainable purchasing behaviour.” Patterns of production and consumption in Germany and worldwide remain unsustainable, and their negative impacts, including marine pollution, climate impacts and exploitative working conditions, are virulent. “There is an urgent need for effective strategies to achieve the SDGs”, says von Braun.
“We already know a lot about what must be done to foster more sustainable consumption and we have already come a long way, for example in the area of consumer awareness,” said Lucia Reisch, Professor for Intercultural Consumer Research and European Consumer Policy at the Copenhagen Business School. “But efforts to achieve a broader transformation still face significant challenges. If we look at transport policy, for example: Much of the relevant legislation was developed in the 1950s, is intrinsically car-centric, and hampers bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly urban and regional planning. In this case, laying the groundwork for transformations requires legislative changes and new infrastructure. While this is a huge task, it can be done, as innovative countries and cities have shown.”
Günther Bachmann, Secretary General of the German Council for Sustainable Development and member of the SPS2030 Working Group on Sustainable Consumption, addressed the question of the real, transformative power of politics and social lifestyles. Looking back on the evolution of the national sustainable development strategy, he praised the relevant FONA and NaWiKo projects. Bachman criticized the consumption indicators employed in the strategy as insufficiently transformative. He appealed for a deeper understanding of the framework conditions of policymaking as a means to heighten the effectiveness of future future strategies. The next critical step, he argued, would be the establishment of an independent body to safeguard the quality of sustainability seals and brands. Bachmann concluded by calling for an industrial policy strategy to foster sustainable consumption.
Representatives from pioneering initiatives from the food and textile sectors highlighted the feasibility of more sustainable patterns of consumption at the workshop. Friederike von Wedel-Parlow from the Beneficial Design Institute, which is developing a textile line using sustainable materials in cooperation with a major German discounter, said: “By working with partners to develop concepts that cover all aspects of production – from product development to production, logistics, distribution and disposal – we can deliver on the promise of the 2030 Agenda 2030 to foster sustainable development across all three dimensions”. Wedel-Parlow’s initiative focuses on closed-loop production chains using non-toxic, near-natural materials with minimal chemical or industrial processing. “The adoption of such an approach facilitates the implementation of low-risk production and disposal processes, reducing energy and investment requirements – important factors in so-called developing countries – and providing both environmental and socio-economic relief,” says Wedel-Parlow. However, the legal and political framework conditions differ from country to country, often hampering implementation, and cultural contexts must also be taken into account.
Politicians also have high hopes for efforts to promote the development of circular economies. Funding programmes have been established at various levels, ranging from the national to the European to the global. However, Joachim von Braun noted that: “Circular economies and bio-based economies are not necessarily sustainable economies. Here, too, situations can arise in which ecological and socio-economic boundaries are crossed.” For example, when cycles result in high energy costs or land suitable for the cultivation of renewable raw materials grows scarce.
To avoid this, models for circular economic activity should be developed in partnership with actors from across the entire production, processing, and disposal chain. In addition, production and recycling processes must be studied in detail to identify challenges and opportunities. Significant research and innovation is still required in many areas. This was also underlined by Hugo Maria Schally, Head of the European Commission’s Multilateral Environmental Cooperation Department. In particular, he emphasised the role of science in the development of the Second EU Action Plan on the Circular Economy, which harbours opportunities to put this topic on the agenda at the European level.
Participants also discussed the pressing challenge of communicating the accessibility of sustainable consumption to political and, in particular, municipal actors from various sectors of society. Talks delivered by Corinna Fischer (Öko Institut) and Michael Bilharz (Federal Environment Agency (UBA)) made it clear that the German Sustainable Development Strategy and its indicator for sustainable consumption (CO2 emissions from private households) already offer a good starting point. The indicator, they argued, provides a means to render the topic in concrete terms and to align measures with existing and successful structures – for example in the climate sector. The National Climate Protection Initiative has already successfully advanced climate protection in municipalities – and if this initiative were also aligned with the objectives of the Federal Government’s National Programme for Sustainable Consumption, a lot could be achieved in the five key areas of consumption: mobility, meat consumption, housing, clothing and the procurement of information and communication technologies.
Any strategy intended to foster sustainable consumption must take into account the high degree of complexities and interdependencies, participants in the focus group on “Consumption as an International Challenge” concluded. The 2030 Agenda provides a good framework for doing so as it offers a comprehensive overview of the sustainability effects of consumer goods and highlights possible synergies and conflicting goals. Consideration must be given not only to ecological effects (such as water consumption in traded consumer goods) but also to social (such as the proportion of women in employment), socio-economic (such as regional development) and cultural aspects. Among other things, the group discussed the existing scientific approaches to assessing the global impact of consumption patterns, and came to the conclusion that current methods fail to properly take these complexities into account and that the spectrum should be expanded to include other dimensions relevant to sustainable development such as poverty reduction, inequality, and health.
Discussions also focussed on three other topics: digitalisation, ethical and socio-economic dimensions as well as recent developments and windows of opportunity since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015. The participants’ comments on the preliminary recommendations for action presented by the Working Group will contribute to the ongoing revision of the recommendations for action for the 2020 update of the German Sustainable Development Strategy. The workshop participants and other interested parties will continue to be involved.
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