Sustainable Consumption Wolfgang Sachs talks to Big Picture about sustainable lifestyles 21 February, 2004 London, UK The Wuppertal Institute once did a study to find out how much material stuff is consumed by the average German every year, or how much material energy is taken from nature. We arrived at the figure of 80 tons per year. It’s a staggering figure. It’s not that that figure comes about because people accumulate 80 tons. Only a fraction of the materials we consume is tangible and visible in our homes. The bulk of the materials used have been used along the way, along the life cycle of the product. It has been used to cut open mountains in order to obtain Ore, or Copper or whatever – or has been lost through soil erosion by, I don’t know, growing oranges. So all products on the one hand show their material content because you have it in front of you; but they also have an “ecological rucksack”, as we call it, which is usually much bigger than the product itself. And the ecological rucksack contains all the other uses of nature which are not visible in the product. Consuming today means not only doing something for your benefit, but it also means consuming nature and people. Every product we buy contains nature and is a claim on the biosphere. And any product can also contain the sweat of people. It’s a claim on people’s time and attention. Therefore an awake and reflective consumer would try to see that in the corner of one’s eye. Not just to stare at the particular benefit he or she could draw from a product, but also to see out of the corner of one’s eye that the product carries an ecological rucksack. In a way, any product can be seen as a mediation between ourselves and the wider and larger natural and social environment. Any act of producing or consuming is a choice, a small vote on how we want to shape our relationship with nature or with the social world. Therefore for a consumer to be self-reflective, it is worthwhile to gain a better understanding of how much nature is contained in any particular product, how much it will use in future. And it is also important to know, wherever that’s possible, who had to suffer for that, who had to sweat for that? Did people get their fair share of the gains along the way? So, on the one hand you have an attention for eco-conscious production and on the other hand you have an attention to Fair trade. I think these are the two major guidelines for self-reflective consumption today. An energy-light product will probably be less of a burden on the atmosphere than an energy-heavy product. And there are many ways to check that. There are all kinds of machines; there is certification, labels, there’s information – one can know about it. And of course for your private behavior, whatever you use, one can raise one’s awareness as to what extent you are using energy slaves for yourself. But I do not want to restrict this to the restricting role of consumer. Every consumer is also a citizen – aware that there are many choices that cannot be made on the individual level only. Social choices that have to be agreed upon, regulated and shaped on the collective level or on the level on the local or national government level. Occasionally consumers have to assert their voices as citizens calling for a car-free inner city, for example; or by calling for, to stick with the example of the car, the building of a car-free neighborhood - to create the conditions that allow you to go without a car. Wolfgang Sachs is Senior Coordinator of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy's project on Globalization and Sustainability and former Chairman of Greenpeace, Germany.
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