Five trends driving progress towards Sustainable Consumption

When we look at our global consumption in numbers, we are given a stark reminder of the task ahead. Around the world, nearly one million plastic bottles are sold every minute, and five trillion pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans. We buy over 80 billion new clothing items a year, and consume 3.9 billion tonnes of food – one-third of which is lost or wasted.

Moving away from the current trajectory of unsustainable consumption is a tall order, but there are signs that the tide is turning. Millions took to the streets in September for Climate Action strikes, and consumers are increasingly demanding action from industry and governments. 

This week, 26 Consumers International members in 23 countries will use #GreenActionWeek as a platform for delivering projects tackling issues from food waste to air pollution, and they will be joined by other stakeholders from civil society, government and beyond.

To mark the week, we are sharing five notable trends that are actively driving progress towards sustainable consumption:

1. Consumer demand for more sustainability information

Clear and intuitive information on sustainability is a vital tool for consumers. To enable consumers to make decisions which support a more sustainable lifestyle for all, they need access to education and clear, reliable information about product sustainability claims.

But unreliable information is in danger of eroding consumer trust. The practice of ‘greenwashing’, where consumers are misled by unsubstantiated sustainability claims on products is becoming a big issue – our member IDEC (Brazil) recently found misleading claims in 48% of the 500 products they analysed.

Businesses who provide clear, responsible and transparent sustainability claims can gain a competitive advantage. The One Planet Network’s Consumer Information Programme, which we co-lead, has lots of useful resources, including guidelines for making effective environmental, social and economic claims, to empower and enable consumer choice.

2. Sustainable mobility and ridesharing

Advances in mobility technology promise to be a huge factor in efforts to reduce our global carbon footprint. From a gradual shift to electric vehicles to innovation in the elevated mobility sector, how we get from A to B is likely to look very different, and potentially more sustainable, by 2030.

But what action are consumers taking in 2019 to change consumption habits? One notable trend is the growing demand for ride-sharing services – with the global market set to reach $170 billion by 2025. Ride-sharing has the potential to reduce the need for car ownership, and carpooling services are also becoming a mainstream option for many consumers.

Grassroots consumer campaigns can also have traction and impact. Movements such as Flight Free 2020 are pushing for consumers to commit to staying ‘on the ground’ next year, and some airlines are responding to consumer demand by leading change for a more sustainable industry

3. Circular design and sustainable fashion

At the Consumers International Summit in May 2019, which convened global leaders from consumer organisations, business, government and civil society, a strong theme throughout was the role that ‘Gen Z’ is playing in demanding more transparency on the sustainability claims of brands and manufacturers.

In the fashion industry, some brands are listening and setting the benchmark for sustainability with their ‘radical transparency’ approach. These fashion producers are providing clear and comparable information on the production approach, costs and mark up for each product, so we, as consumers, can make the call on which products are suitably sustainable.

The concept of circularity is also on the rise in the fashion industry – producing items from safe and renewable materials that are built to last, and recycling old clothes . Circularity can work on many levels – in India, the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG) Green Action Week campaign seeks to educate consumers about viable options for donating unwanted clothes, as well as upcycling, recycling or reinventing them.

4. The drive for sustainable packaging

Unsustainable packaging is a huge barrier that needs to be overcome if we are to achieve real progress towards sustainable consumption. Whether we are shopping online or in our local food store, it’s hard to avoid accumulating an endless supply of needless packaging.

Many of us are demanding action, and global research shows that consumers value packaging that is either recyclable or reusable. At supply chain level, global commitments such as the ‘New Plastics Economy’ initiative are significant steps for major companies looking to address plastic waste.

Changing consumer behaviour and build awareness of how to dispose of unsustainable packaging is also a core focus for our membership and of Green Action Week 2019 – with campaigns in Chad, Ghana, India and Fiji all addressing plastic waste

5. Building products to last – awareness of planned obsolescence

Most products inevitably have a defined lifetime. And while many consumers accept this, the idea some products are designed to die after a certain point is less acceptable. Many products we use on a daily basis – mobile phones, TVs, white goods are vulnerable to mechanical breakdown, software glitches and unavailable or high repair costs – global product lifetime is actually decreasing.

But how can we guard against decreasing product lifetime? As showcased by our Digital Index, worldwide action is being taken to strengthen and protect the rights of consumers, from ‘Right to Repair’ legislation, to tools such as Test-Achats ‘Trashed Too Fast’ reporting mechanism that gives consumers a way of flagging products that they feel have stopped working too soon. And for digital products that are already out of use, growing pressure has led to enacted legislation in 67 countries to deal with the global problem of e-waste, with some of the leading technology firms setting ambitious targets for using renewable materials.