Sustainable Europe Research Institute, Germany
Published online Oct 04, 2010
Sustainable Consumption Research,Sustainable Europe Research Institute,Schwimmbadstr. 2e,Overath 51491 Germany (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Planning for Change was published under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2008 with the aim of giving “advice to governments and other stakeholders” on how to set up successful national programs on sustainable consumption and production (SCP). To summarize my overall impression: the publication provides valuable guidance for governments. And it does so as well for other stakeholders, as soon as a particular government starts such a “sustainable consumption and production process.”
Starting with typical alarming figures about the “significant and mounting” environmental, social, and economic costs of currently unsustainable systems of consumption and production, the guidelines build a floor on why the world needs SCP in every country. They point out that fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development. As a consequence, the guidelines argue that it is prudent to develop a program, a framework, or an action plan on SCP or, wherever possible, to include SCP as a priority issue in national policies such as sustainable development strategies, development plans, and poverty-reduction initiatives. The guidelines provide advice to governments and other stakeholders on how to plan, develop, implement, and monitor such a national SCP program whether the country starts from the very beginning or already has an existing plan that it would like to improve.
Planning for Change successfully balances general information about how to formulate best practice programs with lessons from actual country experiences. The report does not promote a one-size-fits-all model to implement a national SCP program. It instead recognizes and adequately considers that circumstances and specific needs vary too much across countries. Even more, within a single country establishing a meaningful scheme requires careful monitoring of feedback loops.
Overall, the report argues for a strategic programmatic approach to help balance necessary interventions for the consumption and production of goods and services. Policy design should connect long-term vision to medium-term targets and short-term actions. Further on, a multistakeholder approach is an important prerequisite for implementing an SCP program flexible enough to withstand a process of continuous improvement.
Key issues for consideration include obtaining high-level national commitment and leadership; initiating a multistakeholder process; defining objectives, actions, targets, and indicators; basing the program on comprehensive and reliable analysis; building from existing national policies (e.g., integrated product policies and cleaner production policies); integrating with existing national strategies; and developing sector- or issue-based action plans (e.g., resource efficiency or sustainable government procurement).
Consequently, the backbone of the guidelines is a practical sequential approach consisting of the following ten steps: establish an advisory group; conduct a scoping exercise; set the institutional framework; select the priority areas; define objectives and set targets; select policies and initiatives; obtain official approval of the program; implement the program; document, monitor, and evaluate; sustain and improve. Each step is briefly explained and illustrated with country-specific examples. The cross references between these steps indicate that they do not have to be followed in this strict order, but each should be taken into account.
Specific attention (in the form of a chapter of its own) is given to indicators for SCP. In line with the general approach, the guidelines recommend no strict set of indicators, but present for illustration a rich array of alternatives from national examples and intergovernmental organizations. Relevant hints are given for how a country should choose or develop a set of indicators to fit its national needs. Several detailed national case studies and helpful links to references for further insights and inspiration toward national SCP programs complete the guidelines.
The report makes a number of important points. For example, it argues forcefully that implementation of an SCP program is crucial for change and that the best document ultimately is of little value if there is no follow up. This point on continuity is critical, even if suggestions are missing on how to overcome implementation gaps. Key also are the insights from both academic literature and political circles on identification of the most useful SCP policies. For example, research asserts convincingly that voluntary initiatives are often less effective than mandated requirements. Social and technological innovation is crucial as is the need for economic incentives.
The guidelines furthermore point toward the greatest weaknesses of current SCP programs, a lack of defined targets with clear budgetary priorities. The report recommend that targets be linked to a vision, a set of objectives and, where appropriate, a framework that supports the national budget (e.g., making necessary resources available for SCP actions). Remarkable in the document is its unambiguous statements about the limits of educational and informational approaches toward SCP compared to the potential of administrative and economic instruments.
In contrast, other sections of the report lack proper reflection on insights afforded by the academic literature on sustainable consumption. The guidelines highlight the potential of win-win strategies that are relatively easy to communicate and implement. However important such initiatives are—mainly for the short-term success of a program—focusing undue attention on these aspects substantially undermines the urgent and radical changes needed in consumption and production patterns.
As the guidelines are, developers of a national SCP program can see marginal policies—those with an actual but insignificant impact—as well as meaningful policies as justified. The fact that UNEP is preoccupied in its SCP material with emphasizing the availability of “low hanging fruit” should not be a surprise because this approach is a common feature of the SCP documentation produced by international government organizations. Future versions of the guidelines should nonetheless distinguish politically “realistic” targets from socially and economically necessary ones.
Independent of the call for multistakeholder processes and agreements, the guidelines leave no doubt that government holds prime responsibility for the development of SCP programs and the implementation of the requisite sustainability infrastructure. Planning for Change especially warns about the fallacy of expecting the heroic minority of “green consumers” to solve environmental problems. However, given this situation, it would have been useful if the report provided some guidance on how civil society organizations might inspire political decision makers and/or initiate bottom-up processes toward national SCP programs.
Sylvia Lorek is a researcher and policy consultant working on sustainable consumption. She has studied household economics and nutrition (Oecotrophologie) with a focus on environmental and consumer consulting, as well as economics. A lecturer at the Münster University of Applied Sciences, she heads the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI), Germany, and is an active member of The Northern Alliance on Sustainability (ANPED).