Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Saturday, December 20, 2008


Compulsive worship at the altar of consumption has brought humanity to the edge of an environmental abyss—depleting resources, spreading dangerous pollutants, undermining ecosystems, and threatening to unhinge the planet’s climate balance.

Endless economic growth driven by unbridled consumption has been elevated to the status of a modern philosophy. Contemporary economies are capable of producing huge quantities of goods at very low cost. This leads both producers and consumers to regard more and more products as little more than commodities that can be discarded relatively quickly rather than items that embody valuable energy and materials and that should be well maintained and designed for long life spans.

From the standpoint of global justice and equality, the solution cannot be a system of consumer apartheid that upholds western binge habits but denies the poor a decent standard of living. Instead, the rich need to curb their outsized material appetites.

To support the move toward a less consumptive economy, consumers and producers need to pay close attention to the full lifecycle of products. This means they need to concern themselves not just with the characteristics of the product itself, such as how much energy its use may require, but also with the materials and production methods used to manufacture the product and the kinds and types of wastes generated in the process. In addition, both consumers and producers need to consider how effectively goods actually deliver wanted services and comforts, how long products last, and what happens to them once they reach the end of their useful life.

A range of tools is at the disposal of governments, companies, and individual consumers to make progress toward the overall goal of a less consumptive economy. To make a difference, however, these efforts need to be scaled up considerably, and political and structural barriers to change must be struck down.

Most material flows in industrial economies—including waste materials from industry, carbon dioxide and other emissions, and soil loss from farmlands—serve no useful purpose whatsoever and never actually pass through the hands of any consumer. Dealing with these hidden flows will require downsimaterial, zing some of the most destructive activities, such as mining, smelting, and logging. Improving energy and materials efficiency, boosting recycling and reuse, and lengthening the lifetime of products can accomplish this, so that there is far less needs to extract virgin raw materials. But there is also ample space for reducing the environmental impact of the goods and services delivered to consumers—including through dematerialization, clean production, and zero-waste closed-loop systems.

It is much more likely that resource consumption will be minimized and the generation of wastes and emissions avoided if manufacturers factor environmental considerations in from the very beginning when they design products, develop production technologies, and select materials.

Around the world, a growing number of governments are adopting extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws that require companies to take back products at the end of their useful life. These typically ban the landfilling and incineration of most products, establish minimum reuse and recycling requirements, specify whether producers are to be individually or collectively responsible for returned products, and stipulate whether producers may charge a fee when they take back products.

The goal of EPR is to induce manufacturers to assess the full lifecycle impacts of their products. Ideally, they will then eliminate unnecessary parts, forgo unneeded packaging, and design products that can easily be disassembled, recycled, remanufactured, or reused. The EPR approach has spread beyond packaging to encompass a growing range of products and industries, including consumer electronics and electric appliances, office machinery, cars, tires, furniture, paper goods, batteries, and construction materials.

Durability, repairability, and upgradability are essential to lessen the environmental impact of consumption. For easy refurbishing and upgrading, a “modular” approach permits access to individual parts and components, which allows them to be replaced easily. By working to extend and deepen useful product life, companies can squeeze vastly better performance out of the resources embodied in products rather than selling the largest possible quantity. Although fewer goods will be produced, there will be greater opportunity and incentive for companies to maintain, repair, upgrade, recycle, reuse, and remanufacture products, and thus greater business and job potential throughout the life of a product.

Governments and communities can strike a better balance between private and public forms of consumption by expanding organized sharing of facilities and amenities. Government action is also indispensable in overcoming the immense structural impediments to lower consumption levels and to more public forms of consumption. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in transportation: low-density, sprawling settlement patterns translate into large distances separating homes, workplaces, schools, and stores—rendering public transit, biking, and walking difficult or impossible. Improved land use planning, environment-oriented norms and standards, and the creation of a reinvigorated public infrastructure that allows for greater social provision of certain goods and services will help ensure that consumers are not overly compelled to make consumption-intensive “choices.”

Another key area where government action is needed is consumer credit. The savings rate in most countries is falling, while household debt is on the rise. Credit card spending is also expanding rapidly among emerging middle-class consumers. Governments could help consumers by offering advantageous credit terms for certain efficient, high-quality, durable, and environment-friendly purchases. Governments can also design policies that offer tax rebates for the best-performing products, while taxing those that fall short of standards.

An important tool that governments can wield is procurement. By buying environmentally preferable products, government authorities can exert a powerful influence on how products are designed, how efficiently they function, how long they last, and whether they are handled responsibly at the end of their useful lives. Well-designed purchasing rules can drive technological innovation and help establish green markets.

Prominent among the measures governments can take are recalibrating tax and subsidy policies that encourage greater consumption, pursuing pro-environment procurement rules, and establishing appropriate product standards and labeling programs. (