Consumer will is vital to sustainable consumption, says report

By Jess Hallliday

- Last updated on GMT

Overcoming consumer barriers is key to encouraging more sustainable consumption – and stimulating innovation by businesses serving them, says a new report.

Sustainable consumption and production is a major drive for the food sector, covering all stages of the supply chain from ingredients sourcing, to processing, transportation, packaging and waste management.

The new report, from the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute, is non-industry specific in its broad view of consumer and business actions to stem climate change in advance of the Copenhagen conference, but its recommendations are in tune with food industry debates.

It says that says that while governments are working on “big ticket”​ solutions to climate change, often led by individual governments, they cannot achieve the solutions required on their own.

Rather, consumers and the businesses that serve them can help speed action that will help reduce carbon emissions from their elevated levels, which have been calculated at over 30 GtCo2/yr.

Globalisation could actually help speed remedies to the climate problem. “Businesses serve consumers, operate globally and can work quickly. So the opportunity is there for consumers, helped by businesses, to lead a green revolution.”

Consumers’ role

But trying to limit people’s activities is unlikely to have the required effect. Rather, reducing emissions cheaply, quickly, and for the long-term means getting them to change their behaviour voluntarily, and seek low carbon products and services.

A number of barriers to consumer action to changing consumer behaviour are identified, such as the availability and price of low carbon products, lack of information, and a sense of hopelessness due to the size of the problem.

The task of taking down these barriers is given to decision-makers in the business environment.

On the other hand, consumer demand is expected to stimulate companies into developing products, systems and approaches that suit them.

“If we succeed in stimulating consumer demand for low-carbon products and lifestyles, businesses will respond by coming forward with new products and services, better information and marketing activity as part of the new low carbon economy,” ​says the report.

It adds that business action must focus on all stages in process, and having internationally agreed measures of carbon would make it more accessible and accountable. Other tips are building cooperation between companies to tackle carbon ‘hot spots’ in the supply chain; and making greener products and services available should not entail a compromise on performance or value.

Round tables

At the Sustainability Roundtable organised by Food Manufacture magazine in London this month, delegates discussed the need for a single system for measuring the footprint of food products, the difficulties of developing one, and challenges of communicating the information to consumers.

At a European level the recently formed Sustainable Consumption and Production Round table (SCP) is undertaking, as its initial mission, an assessment of existing schemes for measuring food products’ sustainability at all levels of the supply chain – and in all respects.

The stakeholders are not planning on inventing an entirely new assessment method, since a plethora of good methods already exist and more are in development. The problem is that existing methods tend to take in part of the food chain in isolation. For instance, the UK’s Carbon Trust looks at cutting carbon emissions, but not at issues such as water use or biodiversity.

The plan is to take stock of existing and emerging methodologies, identify any gaps in the lifecycle, and look at plugging them.

The Sustainable Consumption Institute’s report, Consumers, Business and Climate Change, is available here.

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