Consumption is closely linked to most sustainability challenges we are currently facing. A more sustainable level and type of consumption must be advanced in Europe in order for the Union to meet both its internal and external targets and commitments related to environmental impacts, for instance, stopping the loss of biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Consumption is also closely linked to political agendas on, for instance, nutrition, poverty and inequality.
Achieving a significant absolute reduction in the impacts of consumption within and outside Europe – and a fair allocation of resources – requires not only addressing what we consume, but how much, in what ways and why. It is an ambitious task that will need concerted efforts by individuals, companies and policy makers.
IEEP is developing its work on consumption-related issues and policy responses by building on our understanding of and long experience with working on relevant topics. Under the Think 2030 umbrella, we have developed analysis and recommendations for how the EU could drive sustainable consumption towards and beyond 2030 by complementing and balancing existing policies targeting supply and production with ambitious demand-oriented interventions, including green fiscal reform, transparency and traceability of product information, and circular and green procurement guidelines and requirements.
Although consumers and consumers’ rights are a central concern for the EU, so far, EU-level intervention related to the impacts of consumption on sustainable development has focused on supply-side measures and on reactively addressing negative impacts of the current linear economy, including improving the resource and energy efficiency of production and end-of-life management of products. While this has contributed to efficiency gains in the production of goods and services, productivity gains and cost savings in one area often lead to increased consumption and resource use in another – a so-called ‘rebound effect’. Meanwhile, many environmental impacts of production have moved with industries to non-EU countries.
Demand-side measures initiated at EU-level have focused on raising consumer awareness and encouraging more reliable and comparable product information, such as the EU product labelling and quality standards, in order to enable safe and more sustainable consumer decisions. However, shifting the responsibility to the consumer has so far had limited impact and, overall, Europeans’ consumption patterns have remained relatively unchanged. According to 2018 IEEP research, European citizens will have to reduce their per capita material footprint by 80% by 2050, if Europe is to meet the objectives set in the Paris Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals.
The focus of EU-level intervention to date partly reflects the fact that demand-side policy measures often fall under the legal competence of Member States, and partly that many of the potential policy options for addressing consumption have not been seen as politically viable. However, the relevance of our lifestyle choices in driving sustainability challenges and the slow progress toward achieving more sustainable consumption in Europe through existing means will require much more political attention and new policy approaches toward 2030.
Progress will likely require a combination of instruments – including regulatory, market-based and information instruments – to achieve an absolute reduction of the impacts of consumption while at the same time ensuring a maintained or increased quality of life for people. Importantly, there is a need for measures targeting both private and public consumption. Further, some of the drivers behind consumption, such as marketing and pricing methods to maximise the demand for new products, will likely need to be addressed.
IEEP sees ample opportunity for the EU to lead by example by acknowledging and addressing the role of demand in achieving Agenda 2030, for instance by trying to encourage existing frontrunners in the market or at the national or regional level, creating the conditions for others to follow and preventing laggards from being left behind. A systematic and ambitious policy approach at EU level may help avoid rebound effects and other unforeseen effects of revised and/or new policy and support a longer-term cultural shift in how we view the concept of sufficiency.