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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

More with Less - Initiatives to promote sustainable consumption

Environmental Economics Research Paper No.3
Prepared by Deni Greene Consulting Services,
Australian Consumers Association and National Key Centre for Design, RMIT for the
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories

Commonwealth of Australia, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24869 9

Introduction

Every day, virtually every Australian is confronted by dozens of messages urging increased consumption. These messages arrive in the form of advertisements and articles in the media, additional advertising on the packaging of purchased products, objects in shop windows, items in the workplace, possessions of friends, and many other forms.

These solicitations clearly reach receptive eyes and ears among the majority of Australians who seem willing and desirous of acquiring and consuming even more than they have now. The reasoning behind this consumption may be similar to that ascribed to American billionaire Howard Hughes, who, when asked: “How much money would you need to be happy?” reportedly responded: “Just a little bit more.”

Australian consumption levels may seem to be at odds with the extent of community concern about the environment. In opinion surveys, between 70 and 90 percent of people express concern about the environment. Some of that concern is translated into purchases of products claiming to be `green', using fewer harmful chemicals, more `natural' ingredients, or made from recycled materials. But overall levels of consumption are among the highest in the world.

A frequently cited statistic is that 20 percent of the world's people are responsible for consuming more than 80 percent of the world's natural resources (as shown in Table 1) and producing 75 percent of the waste.

Current levels of consumption are already inflicting possibly irreparable damage on the earth's atmosphere, soils and flora and fauna. As developing countries seek to achieve even a minimally acceptable quality of life, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the disparity between industrialised and developing countries cannot be resolved by developing countries moving to the level of consumption now prevailing in the industrialised world. There are just not enough resources and enough waste-absorbing capacity to go around.

A key element of moving to achieve a sustainable world is changing the consumption patterns of the world's people. In developing countries, people's consumption patterns must allow them to have a decent quality of life. This means ensuring that people have sufficient nutritious food, clean clothes, decent shelter, effective transport, clean water, sanitation and basic health facilities, adequate employment and education and healthy leisure opportunities. In the industrialised world, this means learning how to have an acceptable quality of life which makes far fewer demands on the earth's resources and environment. This formidable challenge will require new technologies, new approaches, and vastly improved ways of transferring knowledge from those who have it to those who need it.

The concept of sustainable consumption is derived from the concept of sustainable development, formulated in Our Common Future, further refined by Agenda 21, and articulated in Australia by the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. Following from these documents, sustainable consumption is most simply described as consumption which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Table 1. Consumption of Selected Items in Industrialised and Less Developed Countries*

 

Share of world's consumption, %

 

Industrialised Countries

Less Developed Countries

Ratio, average per capita consumption in industrialised / less developed nations**

Cars

92

8

24

Electricity

81

19

13

Paper, etc.

81

19

14

Iron and Steel

80

20

13

CO2 emissions from energy

70

30

8

Meat

64

36

6

Fertiliser

60

40

5

Cereals

48

52

3

Round wood

46

54

1

* The table on which this is based identifies countries as North or South, with Australia and New Zealand part of the North. `Industrialised' and `less developed' seem less confusing.

** This ratio is generally referred to as the Average Disparity Ratio (ADR)

From Salim, E. (1994) In Symposium: Sustainable Consumption


This Report

This report is intended to make an initial contribution to the examination of sustainable consumption in Australia. It looks at the types of initiatives that have already been taken to change consumption patterns so as to reduce environmental impact. It further analyses a selection of initiatives to see what works and what doesn't work, and why.

The study itself is not strategic, nor has it been taken within a strategic framework. No strategy or even policy has yet been developed specifically for sustainable consumption, although a number of Government strategies relating to ESD, greenhouse, urban development, and other issues have direct bearing on the issue. There has not, however, been an identification of priority areas for achieving changes in consumption patterns. Nor is there a set of agreed upon indicators against which progress toward sustainable consumption can be measured. The current study is therefore oriented toward providing practical information about some of the means of changing consumption patterns and the way they have actually worked in Australia.


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