Sustainable consumption and Germany’s response

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Society needs to move away from "consuming" goods to "using" and "sharing" them. SDG 12 presents countries with that opportunity. [Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr]

Moving towards a sustainable consumption model cannot rely solely on consumer habits and attitudes: the formulation of policy is where real change will be made. Germany has a golden opportunity to be a pioneer in this area, write Matthias Ruchser and Ingmar Streese.

Matthias Ruchser and Ingmar Streese are members of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations.

The production and consumption of everyday goods – whether food, clothing or smartphones – have an enormous impact on the environment. Products that are not manufactured, used and recycled in a closed loop put a strain on water, ground and air resources. Greater sustainability needs to be achieved in order to reduce the negative ecological and social aspects of production and consumption. And this has been acknowledged by international and national policy.

SDG 12 of 17, from the UN’s 2030 Agenda, calls for sustainable consumption and production patterns to be ensured. It addresses not only consumers but also policy and the economy. SDG 12 is a cross-sectional goal that will have direct repercussions on whether and how the other SDGs will be achieved.

The goal comprises of eight targets and three proposals for the implementation of the overall goal. This concerns the implementation of SDG 12 within national policy, sustainable production methods and also consumer education.

With the adoption of the ‘National Programme for Sustainable Consumption’ in February 2016 by the federal government, Germany was one of the first signatory states of the 2030 Agenda to submit a proposal for the national implementation of SDG 12. An amended sustainability strategy is to follow in autumn 2016.

Berlin has the historical opportunity to be a forerunner in sustainability. It should take this opportunity to demonstrate how the declarations of intent in the 2030 Agenda can be brought to life.

Since the agenda was negotiated at international level, the language of the agenda is often vague, the goals are weak and the suggested indicators are not specific. This makes it difficult to measure the achievement of the objectives. There are no sanctions. Nevertheless, it sends a strong signal. It is an international game changer.

The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development even calls the agenda a ‘pact on the world’s future’. It regards sustainable development as a holistic approach that is not confined to development or environmental policy, but one that also involves economic, energy, climate protection and consumer politics.

It should therefore be acknowledged that the federal government has already submitted a ‘National Programme for Sustainable Consumption’. The programme emerged within the framework of an interministerial work group with the involvement of the Federal Ministries for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, Justice and Consumer Protection as well as for Labour and Social Affairs.

With this procedure the federal government confirms the cross-sectional approach and the relevance of sustainable consumption in achieving sustainable development. In addition to the ecological aspects of consumption and production, working conditions in manufacturing and the consumption of goods are also taken into consideration.

The National Programme formulates the right goals: We should consume in such a way today so as to leave a liveable environment behind for future generations. This is why sustainably produced goods must come out of their niche and become mainstream. Instead of ‘consuming’ goods, we need to ‘use’ them. Instead of owning every product ourselves, we need to share more of them in the future.

However, concrete measures, bills or economic incentives are not easily found in the National Programme. Instead, the government prefers to rely on education, dialogue, discussion and research. Many measures listed are already being developed or underway irrespective of the National Programme. There is no schedule or financing plan and it remains open as to how and how often the federal government intends to measure the achievement of the goals.

By remaining non-committal, Berlin is passing up the opportunity to be the forerunner again with regard to international sustainability processes in sustainable consumption as it was in the climate protection discussion.

Another weakness is that the burden of responsibility is placed exclusively on the consumer. However, sustainable consumption is the joint mission of policy, manufacturers and trade. What will the federal government do if consumers do not change their behaviour? At the end of the day, consumers should not have to bite the bullet and be left behind as the only responsible party because the political intent for sustainable consumption was insufficient.

Only when the framework conditions are changed will consumers be able to influence market structures through their demand and to consume sustainably.

A broad alliance must be forged in order to bring sustainable products out of the niche. Policy must establish an ambitious framework that incentivises the economy towards greater sustainability. Manufacturers need to ensure compliance with human rights, humane working conditions and high environmental standards on farms and in factories – in Germany and abroad.

Sustainable consumption is simply a must. The trade must place sustainably manufactured products on shelves in such a way that customers can find them easily, even if these products do not yet generate the same kind of revenues as conventionally manufactured products.

There are many ways to flesh out the National Programme. It starts with the expansion of the successful EU Ecodesign Directive to include additional product groups, bringing in effective regulations on warranty rights and goes well beyond economic incentives, in order to represent the social and environmental impact of a product in monetary terms.

Through a reform in the value added tax law, for example, policy could introduce a lower value added tax rate on repair services and used goods, making repairs more attractive and extending the life cycle of products.

This opinion piece was originally published by Diplomatisches Magazin.

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