Sustainable Living - Circular Economy Possible Through Democracy?

Sustainable Living

Deliberate decision-making in all aspects of a society can advance responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), according to a new policy brief from IISD. Rising interest in the circular economy model provides an opportunity to set “systems-wide goals” that correspond to societal values.

The brief, titled ‘Doing More with Less: Ensuring Sustainable Consumption and Production,’ by Peter Doran, is part of the ‘Still Only One Earth’ series being published to mark the 50th anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) in 1972.

Citing current levels of waste in food, energy, and clothing (only 15% is recycled or donated), and the use of natural resources to produce these items (70 million trees in endangered and ancient forests per year, for plantations for wood-based fabric material), the author reports that almost three planets’ worth of resources will be needed by 2050 to sustain current lifestyle patterns. However, Doran explains that institutional and societal debates on sustainable consumption and production must grapple with a belief in infinite economic growth and a planet without ecological boundaries, and a perception that “sustainable development” is an oxymoron.

In 2016, the International Resource Panel identified “decoupling” – achieving economic activity and human well-being without excessive resource use – as an imperative. To achieve decoupling, policy makers in the areas of human wellbeing, economic prosperity, and environmental resilience must act across all three domains. Enhanced resource efficiency is essential to make progress on decoupling, and this has led to an emphasis on circular flows of materials rather than linear. Circularity implies reusing more, and creating and disposing less.

Many of these ideas are contained in the 11 targets of SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production). They include: sustainable management and use of natural resources (target 12.2); substantially reduce waste generation (target 12.5); promote universal understanding of sustainable lifestyles (target 12.8); and remove market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption (target 12.C).

On the policies to help achieve these targets, Doran shares the emergent idea that “the distinctive, primary role of public policy should … be to secure the supply of basic goods and services in a socially responsible way, and not boost private consumption to deliver economic growth.” This approach is in alignment with the call to broaden economic measurement beyond gross domestic product (GDP) to a qualitative, inclusive measure of growth, with indicators for well-being. The calls to “build back better” from COVID-19 carry echoes of these ideas.

Doran concludes the best way to measure progress towards sustainable consumption and production is not the SDG 12 targets and indicators but the extent to which we “shift from a downstream focus on the re-design of private or corporate production and consumption to an upstream focus on the fundamental drivers of national and international economic priorities.” This can include a democratic, consistent approach to regulating markets.

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