Thursday, 3 March 2011
Millennium Consumption Goals: a real and meaningful target for Rio+20?
The idea of Millennium Consumption Goals (MCG), as put forward by Prof Mohan Munasinghe, provides a compelling narrative for the consumer movement. This is especially the case if we can arrive at a set of succinct, transformative goals that are broad, yet tangible, and prioritise action and resource allocation.
Crucially for Consumers International and our national member organisations, MCG could provide an attractive vision for empowering consumers in terms of sustainable lifestyles: a key goal of our movement’s work on sustainability.
Unsustainable patterns of consumption in the developed world are having serious economic, environmental and social impacts worldwide. As consumers it is difficult to know what to do.
On a daily basis, we are bombarded with messages about consumption – consume less, consume differently and most often ‘consume more’: consume more to improve your well-being, consume differently to help the world’s poor, and – in the face of this international financial crisis – just consume to save the economy.
In this context it is no wonder that for years consumer organisations have struggled to frame sustainable consumption (SC) and, more importantly, take concrete measures leading to more sustainable lifestyles. More often than not, despite good intentions, SC has been seen as a slightly elitist concept focusing on a limited consumer segment (willing and able to pay more) and with a bias towards ‘green’ issues.
Within the last few years some stakeholders in sustainability, including the consumer movement, have moved the agenda forward, driving a conceptualisation of SC around ‘ethical consumption’ in an attempt to open up SC to mainstream consumer segments. This also helps broaden the SC concept beyond ‘green’ issues.
However, in my opinion, we still have some way to go – the growth of ‘ethical’ consumption still remains a ‘niche’ solution to the mainstream problem of unsustainable consumption. The narrative it provides does not offer a wide enough vision of what sustainable lifestyles should look like, nor does it articulate the transformative principles and policies that should guide us towards more equal, fair and sustainable consumption.
In this respect I suggest the work of the Green Economy Coalition on ‘roadmapping’ and leverage policies could be of value. The level of detail being developed by the GEC would be a crucial element in building MCG into agents for meaningful change.
The need for meaningful change cannot be emphasised enough. Individualising MCG, in my experience, will not be enough. One more message to consumers about taking ‘action’ will simply drown in the obesity of information out there already - a lot of it telling the consumer to consume less/different/more to help climate change/conservation/biodiversity/wildlife/workers/development/the economy/local community and so on.
Perhaps most importantly – such ‘individualisation’ generally only ‘preaches to the converted’ and reaches the narrow consumer segment that are already taking action to the extent they can and are able to.
Of course the consumer movement believes in consumer information, education and empowerment, but we also know this cannot stand alone. What is often missing are sound (consumer protection) policies and principles that create the enabling environment for consumers to take action that matters. The MCG could fulfill this badly needed, international framework agreement to provide vision and direction – and most importantly create, in the long term, the transformative enabling environment we need to move towards more sustainable lifestyles.
Erik Assadourian from the Worldwatch Institute has made some initial good suggestions for MCG relating to obesity, working week, wealth distribution, reduction in transport and health care for all. Energy consumption and waste would seem like logical additions – and so would a more ‘soft’ goal around values, cultures and education. Finally, as has already been suggested, a fair and stable banking system would greatly contribute to achieving MCG by creating a more transparent, accountable marketplace.
The Rio+20 summit would be an ideal platform for developing MCG at an international level. It would make the summit far more relevant to the broader consumer movement than at present, where consumption and consumer protection issues are seen more as footnotes than drivers for badly needed change. And of course MCG could provide consumer organisations across the developed world with the much needed impetus to drive forward – with other stakeholders – a transformative change towards sustainable and equitable lifestyles.
If we get the MCG right as a framework in itself, then the real challenge of achieving them can begin. Realising the Millennium Consumption Goals will require a change to the international economy as profound and all-encompassing as the process of globalisation they would seek to remedy.
Bjarne Pedersen will attend the second preparatory negotiations for Rio+20 7-8 March 2011 in New York at the United Nations, pushing the case for more discussion about what the MCG could achieve.
The consumer movement have a long history of involvement in sustainable consumption and production – from the UN CSD process to programmes across the world on consumer awareness, education and empowerment. We base our work on the 8 consumer rights.