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More with Less - Initiatives to promote sustainable consumption

Environmental Economics Research Paper No.3
Prepared by Deni Greene Consulting Services,
Australian Consumers Association and National Key Centre for Design, RMIT for the
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories

Commonwealth of Australia, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24869 9

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The major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized countries. Consideration should be given to new concepts of wealth and prosperity which are more in harmony with the Earth's carrying capacity.

Agenda 21, Chapter 4

Table of Contents

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Executive Summary

The concept of sustainable consumption is derived from the concept of sustainable development, formulated in Our Common Future, further refined by Agenda 21, and articulated in Australia by the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. Following from these documents, sustainable consumption is most simply described as consumption which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A key element of moving to achieve a sustainable world is changing the consumption patterns of the world's people. In developing countries, this means changing consumption patterns so that people can have a satisfactory quality of life. In the industrialised world, this means learning how to have an acceptable quality of life while substantially decreasing current levels of demand on the earth's resources and environment.

This report is intended to make an initial contribution to the examination of sustainable consumption in Australia. It looks at the types of initiatives that have already been taken to change consumption patterns so as to reduce environmental impact. The initiatives identified are shown in Appendix 1. It analyses a selection of these initiatives (listed on page 15) to see what works and what doesn't work, and why.

Australian initiatives were analysed for the following areas of activity:

At present, there is no identification in Australia of priority areas for achieving changes in consumption patterns. Nor is there a set of agreed upon indicators against which progress toward sustainable consumption can be measured, although a number of Government strategies relating to ESD, greenhouse, urban development, and other issues have direct bearing on both priorities and appropriate indicators.


Techniques for Influencing Consumption Patterns

Some of the techniques available for influencing consumption patterns and the delivery mechanisms they employ are:


Information/education life cycle assessments, labelling, benchmarking, voluntary standards
Communication/promotion motivation (through advertising, etc.), small financial incentives
Incentives economic instruments (larger financial incentives), threats, accreditation linked to standards/codes, increased amenity
Obligation/coercion mandatory standards, bans, regulations, procurement policies
New or modified products or services product design, substitution of services for products, recycling
Infrastructure creation of the physical or organisation framework for action

Study Findings

Obligatory or coercive initiatives

Analysis of initiatives showed that where consumers have no choice but to act in an environmentally responsible way, they will act in that way. In the highly successful obligatory or coercive initiatives, compliance was mandatory (or perceived to be so) or avoidance was difficult. These initiatives were generally accompanied by considerable publicity and promotion.

Initiatives in this category achieving only moderate success did so because their mandate was limited. Unsuccessful initiatives failed for technical or institutional reasons. The study showed that mandatory actions succeed unless they are technically flawed, or perhaps in cases where compliance imposes a real burden that can be avoided by a failure to act in the prescribed way.


Initiatives Offering Incentives

Unlike mandatory actions, measures relying on incentives to action have to appeal to the consumer with a choice. Successful initiatives in this category were strongly promoted so that consumers recognised they were being offered a personal benefit at the same time as they were helping the environment.

Incentive programs achieved only a moderate or low level of success if they did not offer potential participants sufficient reason to promote action. Voluntary programs for industry appear ineffective unless there is strong government or consumer pressure for action. Some initiatives which were easily avoided were found to have no success.

These initiatives demonstrate that incentive programs have to be designed carefully if they are to work. This is likely to require considerable market research to provide an understanding of the types of incentives that will induce particular groups of consumers to make a change. Such initiatives will also generally be far more successful where they are well promoted, and where consumers have a clear understanding of the benefits to be gained.


Use of Communication and Promotion

Promotion is generally used in combination with information or incentives to encourage action. The mixed results of the initiatives in this category indicate that promotion is not a guarantee of success.

The initiatives achieving a high level of success used promotion along with information, and in some cases incentives, to help consumers gain a clear understanding of the benefits they would achieve.


Information and education

Only two of the initiatives analysed in detail relied mainly on information alone. These initiatives had a low and very low level of success, respectively. It appears that information alone is generally insufficient to get people to act in a way that requires change in existing patterns of behaviour. The broad survey of initiatives undertaken for this study shows that the majority of initiatives attempting to influence consumption patterns are based on the provision of information without any additional clear incentive to action. It seems likely, therefore, that a great many initiatives are not cost-effective ways of achieving changes in consumption patterns.


Future Work on Sustainable Consumption

This study focused exclusively on initiatives intended to change consumption patterns so as to reduce environmental impact. It is apparent though that in some areas where there have been such initiatives undertaken there have also been parallel policies or programs that will shift consumption patterns in the opposite direction. (An obvious example of this is initiatives promoting use of public transport being undertaken in parallel to initiatives to construct massive new freeways.) Further work would be needed to identify areas in which conflicting programs exist.

Further effort is also needed to examine initiatives within a more strategic framework. To do so would require both the adoption of criteria for priority areas of action and development and agreement on indicators of change. Establishment of priorities would, in turn, need to take account of both the environmental significance of areas of human activity and ease of promoting change in specific areas.

Moving toward the achievement of worldwide sustainable consumption will require action in Australia both on reducing impact from our own consumption and on devising and transferring low impact means of improving the quality of life in developing countries. Great efforts will be needed to make substantial progress in each area, but such efforts are essential to the achievement of sustainability.

Commonwealth of Australia
ISBN 0 642 24869 9

This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction rights should be directed to the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories.

Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories
GPO Box 787, Canberra ACT 2601.
Telephone: (06) 274 1111 Facsimile (06) 274 1123

This report was prepared by consultants Deni Greene Consulting Services, Australian Consumers Association and National Key Centre for Design, RMIT, for the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories. Its conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department.

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