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A Consumer Guide to Sustainable Consumption

Reprinted from Consumers International.
Copyright 1997-2000 The Fridtjof Nansen Institute

In 1995, governments agreed to extend the 1985 United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection into other areas, including that of more sustainable production and consumption patterns. As they stand today, the Guidelines cover areas such as consumer safety, product standards, education and information, labelling and consumer redress. It was the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), also in 1995, which first decided that a specific environmental dimension should be added to the UN consumer guidelines. At its 1996 session, the Commission asked Consumers International to assist the United Nations and its member governments in this task. Consumers International has prepared an initial text, in close consultation with its members and other non-governmental organisations. The UN must now set up a process for the discussion and negotiations of the new guideline. What follows is the new suggested guideline on sustainable consumption proposed by Consumers International. CI is also suggesting changes to the existing guidelines that will make them consistent with the new environmental thrust, but these are not reproduced here.

Promotion of Sustainable Consumption

1. Sustainable consumption means the fulfilment of basic human needs without undermining the capacity of the environment to fulfil the needs of present and future generations. Towards this end, governments should adopt, or encourage the adoption of, policies that meet the needs of all citizens, while minimising pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, land and fresh water. This can be done through a mix of policies including regulations, economic and social instruments, sectoral policies such as land use, transport and housing, and the removal of subsidies that promote unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.

2. Governments should work together on changing consumption patterns at the global level. In doing so, they must be guided by the principle of the equitable sharing among the world population of environmental resources and the environment's capacity to absorb waste.

3. Governments should cooperate in the vital task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement of sustainable consumption. Developed nations should support the shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the developing countries through financial assistance, "green" technologies and better access to markets.

4. Pricing products and services in a way that takes full account of their environmental cost would redirect consumption in a more sustainable direction. National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalisation of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the "polluter pays" principle and the full cost for resources principle (also known as the "user pays" principle).

5. Governments should introduce natural resource accounting as a way of providing a more accurate feedback on the impact of consumption and production patterns and of the policies aimed at reducing the pressures on the environment. They should also develop comparable indicators and methodologies for measuring progress towards sustainable consumption, including the efficiency, effectiveness and impacts of the measures taken.

6. Governments should intensify efforts to reduce the energy and material intensities of production and consumption, pollution and waste through promoting energy conservation and efficiency; the environmentally sound and sustainable use of renewable resources; increased waste recovery; reuse and recycling of products and materials; and technological dissemination, innovation and transfer. Developed country governments should promote the transfer of environmental technologies to developing countries. To avoiding the establishment of a new technological dependence, developed countries should also support local research and development into technologies appropriate to the cultural and economic conditions of each country.

7. In order to change consumption patterns, consumers require the provision of services and social infrastructure that achieve the same ends by less environmentally damaging means. The switch from paper to electronic mail, from cars to public transport or from buying goods to hiring them are prime examples. Governments should examine the potential for transforming consumption patterns through meeting needs in new ways, for example by using services instead of products, and take appropriate action.

8. Measures that reduce the environmental impact of consumption will not be enough to compensate for the increase in consumption required in developing countries. Governments, especially from developed countries, should therefore introduce measures aimed at reducing consumption levels.

9. Governments should promote the development, and the demand, for products that have a high-performance, are durable, recyclable, repairable and reusable and are neither toxic nor unsafe. Governments should introduce waste prevention programmes and encourage the provision of facilities for the repair and recycling of used products.

10. Governments should encourage, develop and support environmental testing of products as well as international collaboration on joint testing, training and the development of common testing procedures.

11. Governments should cooperate on the development, promotion and independent certification of national and international voluntary standards for environmental management and auditing and for products and services, with due regard to the specific environmental, social and economic conditions in the producing countries, and to their impact on market access and the competitiveness of those products and services.

12. Governments should promote sustainable agricultural practices, including the conservation of biodiversity, and introduce controls for ensuring that genetically engineered foods are safe for people and the environment and are labelled, taking consumer concerns into account.

13. Governments should promote the conservation and efficient use of energy as well as the transition to non-fossil energy sources. They should also fulfil their commitments under the Climate Convention. Special attention must be given to restraining transportation demand through policies that, among other things, reduce the need for the displacement of people and goods, discourage the use of cars in favour of public transport and result in cleaner and more energy-efficient vehicles. Measures for reducing air pollution, including from vehicle emissions, are also called for. Governments, at least from OECD countries, should cooperate in areas such as the development of agreed standards for air quality, motor vehicle emissions and fuel economy.

14. Governments should ban or severely restrict the production and use of environmentally harmful products and substances like heavy metals and pesticides. At the same time, they should encourage the development of less damaging alternatives for such materials, including through positive incentives and financing. They should also fulfil their obligations under the Montreal Protocol for eliminating production and emissions of ozone-depleting gases.

15. Governments should educate, or support the education, of consumers on the environmental impact of lifestyles; the options for improvement - including extending the useful life of products, even if they are out of fashion; and the benefits of more sustainable consumption. Special attention should be paid to incorporating environmental curricula at every level of the formal education system. Citizens' organisations should be involved in these educational efforts.

16. Governments should promote the provision of truthful information about the environmental profile and/or impact of products and services through means such as eco-labelling schemes, product information hotlines, product profiles, environmental reports by industry and information centres for consumers. They should also promote accords on internationally-recognised symbols for environmental labelling. Information to consumers on the environmental and health impact of the production and consumption of a given product should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade.

17. Governments should take specific measures against misleading information to consumers such as the development of advertising codes and standards and the regulation and verification of environmental claims, backed by legal sanctions.

18. Governments and international agencies should take the lead in adopting more sustainable practices, including in their procurement policies. They should also undertake and promote research and analysis on consumer behaviour and environmental damage with the purpose of identifying ways of reducing the environmental impact of consumption and meeting basic human needs around the world.

19. Promoting sustainable consumption requires governments to act in partnership with all citizens. Women have a particularly powerful role in sustainable consumption because of their central role in providing for family needs.

20. Governments should also actively involve, and support, consumer and other citizens' organisations engaged in the promotion of sustainable production and consumption.

21. In order to ensure compliance with laws and regulations relating to sustainable consumption, governments should provide effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy.

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