A new agenda for consumption

In this study of sustainable consumption, IIED addressed consumption issues among poorer communities, countries and regions, and create political space for opinions, values, demands and solutions from these constituencies.

Ben Garside

Principal researcher, Shaping Sustainable Markets

Sustainable Markets research group

Global discourse is beginning to acknowledge problems of 'over-consumption' and 'mis-consumption' and propose solutions of 'less consumption' or 'different consumption'.

IIED has added to these debates with the (embryonic) notion of 'fair consumption' that recognises that while some people in some parts of the world may need to consume less or differently, others may need to consume more, and that all consumption, if fair, should derive from production and supply chains that derive fair outcomes to society and environment.

Consumption and crisis – do we blame Asia or the west? The current global food crisis tends to get blamed on a few key factors – and one that crops up again and again is the rise in standards of living and diet in Asia. While these markets may indeed be growing fast, they are nonetheless still dwarfed on a per capita basis by consumption in the United States and European Union (where there is also continuing market growth for many food products).

International networks in the field of 'sustainable consumption' tend to be (a) largely European-based and European-focused and (b) emphatic on environmental issues with much less attention to the environmental justice and social equity dimensions of these arguments.

This programme of work on sustainable consumption focused on the distribution of the impacts of consumption among global society.

What IIED did

The project aimed to address consumption issues among poorer communities, countries and regions, and create political space for opinions, values, demands and solutions from these constituencies. 

It also planned to provide clear analysis and critique on how consumption problems and consumption solutions fall differentially on different social groups internationally. IIED:

  • Consulted with individuals and organisations who are already working on and forming opinions on consumption
  • Prepared a notional body of collaborative work on consumption issues
  • Refined and developed this with partners – building a cross-sectoral multi-partner platform with a strong emphasis on southern perspectives, and
  • Built contacts and alliances with existing external activists and networks on consumption.

The research findings highlighted how any new agenda for consumption needs to factor in equity as well as environmental benefit and that there is huge scope to manage global consumption, with evidence that wellbeing can be delinked from consumption, economic
growth from rising resource use, and local development from international trade.

Initiatives to tackle overconsumption need to deliver a fair deal to poorer people who consume little, guaranteeing a decent basic
level to all, and consumption needs to be repoliticised, with the emphasis on inclusion of the world’s poor majority, and collective decisions over individual consumer choices.