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Sustainable Consumption and Production: Wasting Less and Thinking More

23 June 2014, By Deborah Kirby

Natural capital is the totality of all of nature – trees, the bacteria in the soil, the fish in the ocean – that provide the basic life-support functions for humanity. It is the goods and services that the planet provides us that support our well-being. If natural capital is eroded, not only does the productivity of ecosystems decrease – crop yields reduce, fish catches slump – but the ability of the poorest sectors of society to rise out of poverty is also impinged. As the poorest in society tend to depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, if those resources are depleted, then they have nothing to fall back on.

The idea that, rather than eroding the very natural capital we depend on, we should use it in such a manner that it is maintained or even increased is the premise of  sustainable consumption and production. Not only will this ensure that resources are there for future generations, it will also help the poorest of the present generation increase their prosperity. And the world is now beginning to recognize that achieving sustainable consumption and production, in a planet of finite resources, is an essential part of sustainable development.

The issue of food loss and waste is probably the starkest and most easily valued example of unsustainable consumption and production. Food is either lost whilst being produced (i.e. during harvesting, processing and distribution) or wasted at the consumer/retailer end of its journey. Something is surely amiss if a stunning 300 million tonnes of wasted food is actually fit for human consumption. That is more than the net food production of sub-Saharan Africa and enough to feed most of the billion undernourished people in the world. And losing or wasting a third of our food means squandering an area of cropland the size of Mexico every year.

How can we expect our planet to continue to support our insatiable population growth if so much of what it yields is thrown away? We can’t of course. We need to concentrate on achieving sustainable consumption – better utilizing resources so as to produce more for the same level of input and with less environmental damage – by working on the following tasks:

  • Ensuring that we don’t deplete the very natural resources – water, food and energy – that are key to our survival.
  • Ensuring that renewable and non-renewable resources that are essential for economic production – e.g. metals, timber and minerals – are managed properly.
  • Ensuring that we reduce the pollution outputs that are so harmful to human health and ecosystems.

The antipode of sustainable production is sustainable consumption. This is not about using or eating less; it is about doing so more efficiently; throwing away less; demanding more for less from our natural resources. So not only should we buy less, we should also think about making changes to our lifestyles: buying energy-efficient fridges, hanging our washing out to dry rather than putting in the dryer, driving smaller or hybrid cars.

But these changes raise issues about human values and lifestyle choices, and to-date governments have been reluctant to get very seriously involved in them. Things are beginning to change, however. For example, UNEP, in conjunction with FAO, Messe Dusseldorf and others, are galvinizing global action for consumers to be more aware of what they eat and what they throw away.

Simple and savvy ideas for avoiding food waste can be found at www.thinkeatsave.org/index.php/take-action/find-out-how

Take a peek.

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