Progress on Goal 12 should start at home, and it needs to be aspirational

Sustainable consumption and production needs to be easy and sexy says Sue Riddlestone OBE of Bioregional. In this blog she explains how we could get started on Goal 12 in the UK.

When I was at the UN High Level Political Forum in New York last week, a government representative summing up the debate on Sustainable Consumption and Production (Goal 12 of the SDGs) said: “We have heard that we need to make sustainable lifestyles easy and I would add, sexy too”.

A ripple of laughter ran around the UN chamber and I thought yes, she’s right. The first rule of advertising is to make your product desirable or sexy to get people to buy or consume more of it. We could make this work in favour of all the things we need to do if we are to have a sustainable world.  

Signals of change on sustainable consumption and production

Before looking at how to make sustainable consumption and production (SCP) sexy, I should say that there are some signs of progress against this Goal.

The main reason I was in New York was to represent Transform Together, a global multi-stakeholder partnership that Bioregional co-founded to scale and replicate solutions for SCP.

The great thing about these UN events is you can go talk to any of the governments, invite them to your event and follow up with them afterwards. They have to achieve the Goals, so it is in their interest to talk to you. As a result, we now have many more governments involved in a procurement-led initiative to create a market pull for sustainable smartphones.

Bioregional has observer status at the UN from our work to secure the SDGs and SCP as a goal during 2010-15. Back in those days, much of our time was spent explaining to delegates what SCP is and how it can be done.

It struck me as another positive sign that governments were speaking so knowledgeably about what SCP is. Some had even begun to implement action plans. Finland has 60 measures for resource efficiency and a plan to be carbon neutral by 2025 as just one example. This is great progress.

We also know that sustainable consumption – or One Planet Living as we call it - is already happening, and there are so many examples from our partners around the world to prove this, from eco-tourism destinations Villages Nature Paris in France to Singita Serengeti in Tanzania. Both of these organisations are taking massive strides to reduce waste and use fewer of the Earth’s resources.

What we need to do now is scale our collective global efforts. 

Achieving Goal 12 starts at home

But progress must start at home. Goal 12 is just as important in the UK as internationally, and Measuring up shows that the UK could do better. Of 11 targets, nine are rated amber, one is rated red and only one, Target 12.c, is rated green. This is on ‘rationalising inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies’.

Bioregional’s call to action for the UK Government leads with the need to review what SCP means for the UK and have a position on that by the end of 2020. This would include defining what sustainable consumption of critical natural resources by 2030 means for the UK; looking at freshwater, land, fisheries, timber, forestry, and indeed carbon, both in the UK and the global context (target 12.2).

A critical part of this would be a solid plan for a circular economy, where we re-use, recycle and recover waste, tackling issues like single-use plastics which has huge public backing (Targets 12.3, 12.4 and 12.5). On this, regulation is one thing, but leading by example including with public procurement (Target 12.7) is another, and business has a huge role to play (Target 12.6).

The shift to a circular economy also needs need public education, or perhaps making sustainable lifestyles easy and sexy as we heard from the UN last week (target 12.8).

Can achieving SDG12 really become a sexy, aspirational idea? Well here are some thoughts for starters.

  • No-one thinks piles of waste are sexy, but everyone likes getting 50p off a cup of coffee when they use a reusable cup. It saves retailers money on all those throwaway cups too.

  • When your phone is broken, you could fix it rather than buying a new one using the app Ifixit or by going to a repair shop. What a sense of achievement and think what else you could spend £500 on!

  • Food waste has its own target (12.3). How often have you recoiled in horror at the huge plate of food set before you in a restaurant and thought ‘that’s the diet out of the window then unless I just waste it’. Maybe restaurants could offer small, medium and large options. That would mean we don’t waste food and we eat quantities of food we actually need.

Perhaps we need to think more like Don Draper from Mad Men to achieve Goal 12. Talk up a desirable sexy vision of sustainable lifestyles, make it easy to do the right sustainable thing and back it up with the policies to support business and all us to achieve it.

Sue Riddlestone OBE is CEO and co-founder of Bioregional who led the Goal 12 chapter of Measuring up.