Governments: Facilitating Sustainable Consumption and Lifestyles

Several past and current policies and initiatives have supported sustainable consumption (and production). Starting on the international level, the Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) program by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is based on the achievements of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (the Earth Summit), and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg (UNEP 2012). The European Union launched the Beyond GDP initiative, aiming at developing indicators that are as clear and appealing as GDP, but intend to be more inclusive of environmental and social aspects of progress, and the Action Plan on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) that has life cycle thinking in its core, to name a few. Similar programs have been started in many other countries worldwide.

The government itself is a big consumer, with governmental spending in the range of 1/6 of nation-wide spending (e.g. in the EU 2002: 16 %). Green Public Procurement (GPP) is therefore a means that can have a key steering effect for more sustainable products. Continuous efforts are made for better informed GPP with comprehensive, life cycle based indicators (e.g. in the recently started project EURECA for GPP of data centre services (NN 2015)).

Beyond this product-perspective and next to creating markets for less impacting products, the scale of government procurement can also facilitate the creation of infrastructures in support of green procurement by consumers: Governments set the rules of the society and establishes or steers the development of key infrastructures, which can be favouring more sustainable consumption. Government can hence also provide options for less environmentally impacting consumption, e.g. public transport.[1] Similar to the situation of companies that offer cost and time saving aspects of their products for the direct benefit of the consumers, also governments generally follow the approach of saving costs and time for the citizen. Therefore, only by understanding the society-wide implications including due to secondary consequences of their projects and policies, the governments can fully take their role of steering consumption towards a long term stable, i.e. sustainable one. This includes to steer or counteract the transformational effect (Greening et al. 2000).

Identifying or developing elements that make up sustainable lifestyles and facilitating their adoption by implementing the required infrastructure are key tasks. Promoting sustainable consumption and sustainable lifestyles, as well as facilitating them by financial measures are other, main leverages of governments, on the way to a sustainable society. R&D investments into sustainable products and lifestyles and their infrastructure, Green Public Procurement, and education courses and campaigns for schools and university courses, are further examples for suitable governmental activities. On international level, the coordination with other national governments will help improving the common understanding of sustainable consumption and measures. This list above illustrates the crucial role that governments have in steering the society to sustainability.


A range of other actors play a role in society and also in efforts to a more sustainable consumption:

Industry associations – similar to companies – are important sources of high quality life cycle data for products that best represent the industrial reality. They can moreover disseminate information about sustainable products and sustainable consumption aspects to their members and bring in the voice of the represented industry into the public discussion on sustainable consumption.

Green and consumer NGOs can support bringing understanding and knowledge on sustainable consumption to consumers and contribute to the public discussions on sustainable lifestyles.

Research bodies and consultants are essential to help increasing the understanding and knowledge base on secondary consequences of consumption decisions, by developing better methods and models, and by offering software tools and data to support the analysis.

  • [1] Such measures can have relevant negative environmental secondary consequences, if they free household resources at the consumer, i.e. if they are cheaper, save time (or allow to do two things at the same time, e.g., working during commuting), as already mentioned. Gillingham et al. (2013) however have found from the analysis of studies that negative environmental secondary consequences of energy-efficiency improvements are typically in the range of 5–30 % and hence less than is sometimes feared and warn that paying too much attention to single cases where the effect is higher may be used as excuse to not take action
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