What on Earth is Sustainable Consumption?

I'm currently on a course about Greening the Economy by IIIEE in Lund University on Coursera, and they mentioned some useful things about sustainable consumption which caught my attention. I'm not sure many people know what it is, and although it features prominently in the SDGs as it's own Goal 12, you don't hear someone championing it as much as they would champion, say, Zero Hunger. In a way, many people think about it as being a first world problem, given that as GDP rises, consumption rises as well. In Africa, and Nigeria in particular, GDP is at an all time low, so consumption invariably is as well. People here are generally thinking about how they can consume in the first place!

Still, Africa should be leapfrogging, and learning from the lessons of developed economies, so that when our consumption increases with our GDP, it immediately increases in a sustainable manner. That's why it is important to put as much focus on this goal.

So first, let's see who drives consumption. Basically, it's Households, Businesses and States/Countries. And when we look at the unit of Households, the three key drivers here are food (25%), transportation (30%) and housing (45%).

Now, let's see what drives consumption. I already touched on this above; Basically, it's increased economic growth. Where the economy grows, we see increased competition amongst provides, leading to lower prices and higher advertising, leading to increased consumption. Improved technology also contributes here, not to talk of enabling government policies. So the richer we are, the more we consume.

You might have noticed that consumption here means not just what we eat, but what we buy. So what does it mean exactly to consume sustainably or responsibly? It means making a CONSCIOUS effort when we are buying anything, to think about environmental and social impacts of that thing…from its production to its disposal.

Let's focus on how households consume and list a few examples of practical sustainable consumption that individuals can take note of.

Food: Buying from your local street vendor (instead of a fancy supermarket) who you're sure gives organic produce that hasn't gone through a factory process with chemicals and/or genetic modification. And who's produce didn't have to be transported by air. Admittedly, this is easier to do in Africa were markets are the norm. Also, buying what you can finish so you reduce your food waste.

Transportation: Teleconferencing instead of boarding a plan to the neighboring state; buying a car that's more energy efficient (err…not Volkswagen obviously); sharing your rides e.g. if you've got a neighbor who works with or near you; using bicycles or walking short distances; not overloading your car so that it is lighter and therefore more energy efficient; using more public transport (although this usually proves difficult in Nigeria because it is so inefficient); knowing which mobility provider practices sustainable production and choosing them when buying and servicing your car; not having so many cars per the household.

Housing: Buying an air conditioner that is more energy efficient and servicing it regularly; using less electricity by putting lights and sockets off, and disconnecting appliances; using only energy efficient bulbs and appliances; buying less stuff!; buying products that have minimal packaging so you can reduce your waste; reusing your furniture and clothes or donating them to another home; powering your home with renewable energy.

But the thing is, these little actions will only get us so far. We need big actions for responsible consumption to count towards sustainable development, and this can’t happen without state-wide infrastructure. For example, the state has to get public transport infrastructure and organization right before people start using it, and in so doing, use their cars less; mandate and enforce clear labelling and eco-labelling of goods so that people know what they're buying and can make an informed choice; mandate and enforce sustainable building practices before buildings will comply; charge a carbon tax to producers and consumers to discourage fossils; etc.

Essentially, sustainable consumptions by individuals is only one part of the issue. Our individual actions need supporting infrastructure and policies provided and enforced by government. And these policies, and hopefully other government incentives, will ensure that businesses carry out sustainable production (which is another matter altogether).

Still, we need to start somewhere. Let's get more awareness on sustainable consumption so that we can all together start making those conscious choices. Here are some useful links for you to check out if you'd like to learn more about sustainable consumption: The Secret Life of ThingsEco-labelingGreenApes community.

P.S. I initially discussed this topic on Twitter. Special thanks to SDGsSaturdayJennifer, Mazi, ChinmaSheRecycles, RJ and Baba T for contributing and sharing.