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August 10, 2003 

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Sustainable consumption: The task ahead

Consumer International

Consumers cannot afford to ignore the consequences of their consumption patterns and lifestyles on the environment. Money spent on household consumption worldwide increased 68% between 1980 and 1998. Ever increasing consumption is straining the environment, polluting the Earth, destroying the ecosystem and undermining living conditions. This is a deadly side effect of the development model and lifestyles of the developed countries in the North and emulated by the rich in the South. Such consumption is not environmentally sustainable. Humans must learn to manage their consumption patterns in an equitable manner and nation states must adopt environmentally and socially sustainable patterns of consumption.

For the Asia Pacific region, there are several critical factors and pressure points that make sustainable consumption a complex and inter-related problem.

Population increase
Population increase bring with it greater consumption pressure. Population in the Asia Pacific region, home to two-thirds of the world population, is increasing at a rate of 1.2 % every year, and is estimated to reach 4.7 billion in 2025. China already has 1.3 billion people and India, over 1 billion. The Asia Pacific is also an area of rapid urbanisation. The urban population is currently growing at twice the rate of the total population and it is projected that in 2025 over half (51%) of the population will be urban (ESCAP, 2001). Urban populations everywhere consume more resources than their rural counterparts.

Resource intensity of consumption and the emerging middle class
The level of consumption, however, is not dependent on total population only. More significant to the level of consumption is the intensity of resource utilisation. Population and consumption are two interactive sides of man's impact on the environment. Indeed, overpopulation is the over consumption of environmental goods and that over consumption may be the result of too many humans contending over a limited resource base or an economic elite using that resource base excessively and abusively to the detriment of poor nations, future generations, and non-humankind.
This is a growing phenomenon in developing countries where a section of the population enjoys a standard of living, and even lifestyles, similar to, if not even more lavish, than that of the populations of the developed countries. One estimate suggests that by 1996, the emerging middle class of China, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand amounted to roughly 750 million, almost as many of the 880 million in the industrialised countries. The rich contribute more to outdoor pollution, global warming, acid rain and toxic. But the poor bear the brunt in loss of lives and risks to health from pollution and toxic and in loss of livelihoods from soil degradation, desertification, deforestation and biodiversity loss.

The foremost concern of any consumption policy is meeting the consumption needs of the current poor feeding, clothing, housing, educating, and healing the ill among the poverty stricken of the world. It is meaningless to talk about consumption that is sustainable, when the basic and primary current consumption needs of society are not yet met. This is especially relevant for the Asia Pacific region. It is in Asia that the bulk of humanity resides and where rapid economic growth has occurred especially during the decade of the nineties. However, though much of Asia has grown rapidly, the progress achieved in the region continues to exclude a vast majority of its poor and undernourished. At the same time, the region is slated to become "more degraded, less forested, more polluted and less ecologically diverse in the future" (UNEP and Earthscan, 1999, 72). It is paradoxical that a region that has abundant resources and is consuming its resources rapidly is still unable to provide a decent living for the majority of its inhabitants.

Advertising fuels consumption
Consumption in the Asia Pacific is also growing rapidly due to greater expansion in access to information and communications tools. Access to consumer goods and services have been revolutionised. Billboard, Radio, Television, Cinema and Internet advertising have all grown greatly. Products and services from all corners of the globe are being increasingly promoted and influence the consumption patterns of millions of consumers in the developing countries of the Asia Pacific, especially the younger generation. Growth of advertising in developing countries has been spectacular. Between 1986 and advertising expenditure in China grew by more than 1,000%, in Indonesia by 600%, in Malaysia and Thailand by 300%, and in India, the Republic of Korea and the Philippines by more than 200% (UNDP, 1998). Consumers have been inundated with media messages urging them to consume more and more.

Impact of globalisation
Economic globalisation has further exacerbated the gap between rich and poor nations. There have been negative consequences with economic globalisation that are evident in the depletion of natural resources as a result of globalised trade, and abrupt investment shifts. In some instances, trade liberalisation has resulted in communities and small producers falling further into poverty, as they are unable to compete with the larger and more powerful multinationals that have entered and cornered their local markets. So far, the benefits of international trade have been felt the least by the people of the developing world.

Concluding remarks
Narrowing the consumption gap between the rich and the poor is obviously a key global priority. There is also a growing consensus that developing countries need not follow the unsustainable path taken by the developed countries. There is a real opportunity for the developing world to leapfrog to growth patterns that are good for the environment and rise from poverty. Very importantly, the sustainable consumption debate needs to shift its focus to the unsustainability of affluent lifestyles of the rich in both the developed and developing world. Towards this end, an alliance needs to be forged between governments, the corporate community and consumers to ensure that the sustainable consumption obligations in the UN Guidelines are successfully implemented.

Consumer International, a coalition of 250 organisations in 115 countries working for the protection and protection of consumer's rights.


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