Today is the International Day of Co-operatives, marked by the United Nations and co-operatives worldwide. The theme this year focuses on one of the key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – sustainable consumption and production.
To link with this in a timely way, I have a report on co-operatives and the SDGs published by Co-op News – an English language version of an earlier paper commissioned originally for our new sister organisation in Japan.
In 2006, I co-chaired with Alan Knight a roundtable on sustainable consumption with a number of distinguished members, such as Rita Clifton and Tim Jackson, and our report, influential at the time, was one of those rare times when seventy pages of findings could be summed up in a single title: I Will If You Will.
In the report we said:
Some people insist that sustainable consumption inevitably means ‘consuming less’. Others maintain, just as fervently, that it is not about consuming less at all but about ‘consuming differently’.
In the first camp are those who lament the ‘rampant materialism’ of modern society and suggest that we would actually be happier and enjoy a better quality of life by consuming less. They point to evidence of voluntary ‘down-shifting’: people who appear to opt for a better work-life balance, more quality time with their families and a low- consumption lifestyle.
In the second camp are those who suggest that consuming less would restrict choice and reduce the quality of people’s lives. They argue instead that sustainable consumption involves ‘consuming efficiently’. They highlight the transformative power of the market to deliver greater efficiency in industrial processes, cleaner and greener products, and more sustainable consumer choices.
This division suggests two distinct routes to sustainable consumption. One looks for deeper engagement with the natural world, aims for increased self-reliance and simpler lives, and calls for large-scale changes in people’s aspirations and behaviours. The other seeks sustainability in the continuing march of progress, opening out the possibility of new, more sustainable products that simultaneously improve our lives. We appear to be offered a choice between two competing alternatives. Which route should we choose?
The reality is that this suggestion of a ‘fork in the road’ is misleading. Neither model of change is complete in itself. The first makes vast and possibly unrealistic demands on human nature. It risks alienating those whose behaviour it seeks to change. The second neglects one of the key lessons from the past: that efficiency improvements are often outstripped by growing aspirations and increased consumption elsewhere. Neither model is yet capable of demonstrating that it will lead to a ‘one planet’ society. In reality, elements from both strategies are going to be needed.
The divided view highlights some of the key issues that lie at the heart of the challenge of sustainable consumption. The first is a lack of clarity over the term ‘consumption’ itself. The second is the link between consumption and economic stability. A third is the role of business in delivering sustainability. A fourth is inequality. The fifth is the complexity of lifestyle aspirations in modern society.
Looking back now, this seems perhaps too hopeful: that small scale changes – such as eco-rating of fridges and freezers – could build the constituency for large scale and transformative cultural change.
The challenge at the heart of sustainable consumption and production remains a moral tension, as to whether we can draw a line and say ‘no more’.
The challenge is whether we are able to develop a shared framework of ethics that recognises that, within the limits we face, overconsumption by one group is in principle… an act of theft from another, or an act of violence on those that face the consequences of an unsustainable world.
So much of the sustainability challenge is in the nature of what researchers call a collective action problem.
That means that we need to give far more attention over time to the traditional tools of social co-operation in order to solve them – civic engagement, collaboration across the economy, peace building and conflict resolution, inter-state regulation and policy… and the nurturing and affirmation of the values of co-operation throughout.
Not just today, but every day.