What does sustainable lifestyle and sustainable consumption mean? What is the practical definition when speaking about food consumption (does it mean eat organic, local, seasonal, be a vegetarian?) and how to promote more sustainable consumption habits?
During my visit to Paris in September, I met Stefanos Fotiou who is working at the United Nations Environment Programme and is an expert on these issues (1). He was great to talk to and gave lots of insight
How to promote “sustainable lifestyles”?
UNEP’s work on sustainable consumption issues is relatively new and it has increased in the last 10 years. The focus of the organization was originally more on production issues and how to reduce the environmental impacts of sectors: chemical, tourism etc.
It is very difficult to work on the consumption side. Leveraging sustainable consumption patterns is most likely to work through policy, with 3 main types of action:
- Change the standards or norms that apply to products
- Change the fiscal and economic instruments (including taxation) and use tolls like payment for ecosystem services
- Education, awareness and advocacy policies
The most efficient lever to change consumption patterns remain making products that have a negative impact on the environment less desirable and not attractive (including making them more expensive), and to make products that have fewer impacts more affordable, widely available and cheaper. But any policy that impacts the price of products and services should not harm the income of poor people and their ability to consume basic products and services.
To promote sustainable consumption, it is first essential to identify the determinants. To adopt a sustainable lifestyle depends partly on our everyday choices. It also depends on the place where we live: The access to resources; the availability of choices is different if you live in China, in the European Union, or in Africa. Another determinant is education and curricula for sustainability. In this respect, UNEP is working a lot to make sustainability issues integrated in curricula.
Acting at the city level is essential to promote sustainable consumption patterns
In 2030, around 80% of people will live in cities. Cities can be seen as a problem for the environment as they are responsible for big environmental impact. For instance around two third of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by cities.
But in the meantime, cities could be a solution as they can achieve scale of activities and they also have agglomeration effects. A solution implemented in cities is able to have a huge impact on reducing environmental impacts. For instance, linking waste management and energy production could have an impact on thousands of people.
What about sustainable food?
When talking about sustainable food consumption it is important first to distinguish production of essential food commodities (cereals, milk…etc.), that need to be increased in order to be able to feed people, in a world where we’ll be more than 9 billion in 2050, and other type of food.
Promoting sustainable production in agriculture is essential, as well as promoting organic agriculture. But I am not sure that organic agriculture would allow to cover all the food needs of the people on earth. Sustainable agriculture – where less water, energy, pesticides is used – is a complementary solution that can achieve scales. And we need to promote sustainable agriculture techniques in all production of food commodities.
Another level of action is reducing food waste, in particular in industrial countries and in big cities in both industrial and developing countries. Consumers have an important responsibility, but the responsibility of retail shops and other businesses has also to be taken into consideration.
We need also to start tackling the uncontrolled consumerism habits. Governments should promote the message that people should consume wisely and sometime consume less. Such message would not necessarily mean to reduce the overall spending but just to consume better and more equally.
How to promote sustainable food?
Education is the best solution but it’s a long term strategy that will have results in the long term. It is important to develop more specific policies including regulatory instruments following some successful cases (for example the campaign against smoking), which achieved good results. This approach will need to focus on many levels including advertisement, economic instruments etc.
The same kind of strategy could be followed to reduce for example excess sugar and salt consumption whose impacts on health are huge.
At a private level, action is also possible. For instance, for restaurant with all you can eat offers, making guests pay the dishes which were not eaten may result in people becoming more cautious. Prices for food basic food commodities should be kept low whereas products that are unessential and that have bad impacts on the environment and on health could cost more to internalize the hidden cost that they cause to the environment and health.
Local food not always means sustainable, we need to look at the overall impacts of the production. But in general, “eat local” can be a good guideline even if not perfect. It would be better to promote “eating locally sustainable food”.
Do you think there is enough information on environmental impacts of food for the consumers and in general?
It is very important to have at least the basic information on food impacts available to the consumers. This is for instance already implemented with information on nutrients, and it could be further expanded to environmental impacts. The enforcement mechanism applying to food industry needs to be very strong as recent food scandals have shown.
We still need more data and we need to collect more information and then choose which one can be useful for consumers, and could be for instance added on packages.
What do you think about promoting more unprocessed food or less meat?
People’s food preference is really a delicate matter and I do not think that we have the right to tell people what to eat. It is thus important to support the people on eating “good nutritious food”. I can’t really see how we can have the right to say “eat that and don’t eat this”. I don’t think that generic messages like “don’t eat animal proteins” are fair. It would be very complicated and people could misunderstand the messages. Millions of people also have to follow specific diets for health or cultural reasons. How can we say for example to a diabetic person not to eat animal protein, when the person needs to reduce carbs for health reasons? It’s better to promote generic messages that will help people “avoid bad food” and promote reliable and tested, healthy food pyramids.
 The views expressed in this interview are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations Environment Programme, nor are they an official record. The text of the interview has been compiled by the author of this article.