United Nations System-Wide

Reducing consumption - updated 6 August 1999

The 20th century culture of consumption leads to great economic and environmental costs. For example, the annual cost of  pollution and ecosystem degradation in China is at least equivalent to 15% of its GDP (Smil, 1995). The environmental costs of economic development are high, with the Asian Development Bank estimating that the Asia-Pacific region needs between $12 and $70 billion a year to mitigate damage (Gourlay, 1995). The environmental industry has grown in response to this damage, although it  is still more focused on waste disposal, not waste reduction. Many companies are now paying more care to producing materially efficient products.  Waste is coming to be seen by economists, traders and multinational corporations as a global resource which has value and can be traded like a commodity. Some economic forecasters see waste management becoming a global business worth $500 billion or more (Coll, 1994).

Success in controlling some environmental pollution has highlighted the distinction between those environmental problems for which a technological fix is possible, and where improvements are taking place, and those more systemic problems like global warming where only a fundamental change in life-style and economy, with a significant moderation in the consumption of resources, can bring any hope of a solution.  The optimism engendered by the former should not hide the challenge still represented by the latter (OECD, 1996a; McKibben, 1995). Some groups in Europe, particularly non-governmental organizations and research institutes, have been studying what is required to bring European consumption down to sustainable levels and to free up sufficient resources for an equitable sharing with developing countries (Wuppertal Institute, 1995).

People in industrial countries account for about 20% of world population, yet consume 86% of its aluminium, 81% of its paper, 80% of its iron and steel, and 76% of its timber. The average US citizen accounts for the use of 540 tons of construction materials, 18 tons of paper, 23 tons of wood, 16 tons of metals and 32 tons of organic chemicals in the course of his lifetime (Young, 1995a). Today, mining moves more soil and rock - an estimated 28 billion tons per year - than is carried to the seas by the world's rivers. Since 1950, nearly a fifth of the earth's forested area has been cleared, and industrial logging has more than doubled (Young, 1995a). Materials use has grown far faster than population: in the US, total consumption of virgin raw materials was 17 times greater in 1989 than it was in 1900, compared with a threefold increase in population (Young, 1995a).

In order to reduce the flow of materials for consumption, it has been said that a transition as profound as that from the Stone to the Bronze Age must be brought about (Young, 1995a). Such a transition would entail a change of mentality on the part of industry and individuals alike, from consumption of virgin raw materials and discarding the waste, to taking into account the need for environmentally efficient materials use. Germany, for example, has taken the initiative to reduce waste by making manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their products. Other alternatives include taxes on raw materials production to make consumers pay for the full cost of their waste disposal, and developing stable and organized markets for secondary materials. In Great Britain, trading of secondary aluminium began on the London metals exchange in 1992, and formal trading systems for recycled materials are being developed. Also under consideration is a system of loaning, rather than actually buying many products (Young, 1995a&b).

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Coll, Steve. 1994. "Global Economy Faces the Global Dump". International Herald Tribune, 24 March 1994.

Gourlay, Ken.1995. "A world of waste". People & the Planet, vol 4, number 1, 1995. p. 6.

McKibben, Bill. 1995. "Not so fast". New York Times, 23 July 1995)

OECD. 1996a. OECD reports for environment ministers 19-20 February 1996, cited in "How clean can you get?" The Economist, 17 February 1996.

Smil, Vaclav. 1995. "China's consumption frenzy cannot last". People & the Planet, vol 4, number 1, 1995

Wuppertal Institute.  1995. Towards Sustainable Europe: The Study.  Friends of the Earth (Publications), Luton, U.K.

Young, John. 1995a. Towards a new culture of consumption. People & the Planet, vol 4, no 1, 1995, p. 10.

Young, John. 1995b. The Materials Revolution." People & the Planet, vol 4, number 1, 1995, p. 13.

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