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Garrette E. Clark, UN Environment: 'What's your action to tackle climate change?'

GUEST BLOG: Garrette E. Clark

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Garrette E. Clark from the UN Environment (UNEP) writes about how important consumers are in the transition to a more sustainable world. 

By 2050, the world’s population may reach a whopping 10 billion people. With more people comes more consumption – of food, fashion, travel and related aspirations. Two to three billion of these will be new urban, young consumers, who receive 90% of their information from social media. In a world stretched thin for resources and under the threat of global climate change, how can we enact change?



Well they do! And our future depends on the decisions and actions taken today. We are all designers of our future - as individuals and in our roles in business or government and we have the power to effect positive change no matter who we are, or where we live.

Keep in mind that most people do not wake up with the intention to harm the environment - nor to help it. We get up, eat, get dressed, take our kids to school, go to work to make money, we live our lives investing in the products and services we need and want. The amount of stuff people have in many parts of the world has shot up, while in other areas, many people still struggle to meet basic needs. Our future now depends on how we choose to live, work and play as global consumers – how we run our homes, what food we eat, how we get around, how we relax, what we buy and how we care for our planet.

From experience, we know that people do not change behavior based on what they should do, on data and statistics nor on negative future scenarios (fear). People act to fulfill needs and live aspirations and make decisions based on price, accessibility, effectiveness and additional criteria like well-being, or trending products. Sustainability may play a role but currently it’s a small one and even people who want to live more sustainably, usually do not have access to affordable and desirable products and services. People also note a lack of trusted sustainability information and may feel alone in acting and therefore powerless. This underscores that beyond people, it is up to governments and business to provide more information, and to support and develop new business models to make sustainable living a reality (or even the default option!). Remember governments and businesses are consumers along value and procurement chains and drive global demand and innovation. 

Sustainable lifestyles - one size doesn't fit all

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) sustainable lifestyles work applies a ‘people lens’ on how we consume and produce, complementing work done with businesses and governments. UNEP works with global experts, including the One Planet Network to understand the high-impact actions people can take to live better and lighter and how to effectively get the word our – particularly to youth. There is not one answer nor one way. Lifestyles vary across the planet and we need all hands-on deck! Given trends in social media it is important to embrace and harness diverse and new voices and platforms to activate people and this includes working with cultural influencers; behavior change experts; media companies, and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Emerging influencers in environmental activism

UNEP, as all UN Agencies, work within global mandates such as the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030, the Paris Climate agenda towards more circular and sustainable consumption and production systems. It’s a busy, critical time - spurred on by increasing data, awareness, ‘climate chaos’ seen in the media and the revitalized attention paid to the UN Summits on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals. There are new influencers in the global space such as Greta Thunburg and youth activists around the world, cultural influencers including celebrities and emerging Utube personalities. Globally connected, these informal actors seem to be new wild cards in the policy arena. We need them and more to galvanise action – targeted action. Urgency and equity demand it.

Anatomy of Action

This is the context behind the development of the Anatomy of Action an evidence-based social media tool kit that translates science into what people can do in their daily lives. Developed with our partner the UnSchool of Disruptive Design the tool kit messaging highlights the five key lifestyle domains: Food, Stuff, Move, Money and Fun. Under each there are three actions with more how-to’s. The kit has 3 motivating videos, and lots of assets that can be used for Instagram posting to personalise and document action. The kit can be used to see what you can do or how you can work with networks to promote sustainable living and climate action. A pilot Challenge was hosted over 15 days and reached an audience of over 5 million people from over 40 countries – illustrating the potential of using social media. 

This is only one of the many resources. UNEP’s work on sustainable lifestyles contributes to the One Planet Network Programme on Sustainable Lifestyles and Education a network of global experts devoted to promoting more sustainable living and lifestyles. We work to build a shared vision of sustainable lifestyles and promote the integration of principles and practices across all sectors of society, by developing resources, incentives, and empowering individuals. We support research (A Framework for supporting sustainable lifestyles; 1.5 and lifestyles and climate); future forecasting (Society and Lifestyles in 2050 Survey), and guidelines and tools (urban and in the workplace levels) to help activate sustainable living initiatives. 

UNEP brings the science and insights on what is happening and where to target action. We work with policy makers and others to set conducive policy contexts. With urgency and the changing ecosystem of knowledge and information transfer – we can now better partner, engage and harness the power of people – a growing urban population fueled by youth who engage with their communities and exhibit their lifestyles through social media – today’s consumers and tomorrow’s decisionmakers. Given disastrous climate, ecosystem, pollution and equity impacts, we know need to live better and lighter. Everyone.

The author is a UNEP staff member and alone is responsible for the views expressed. They do not necessarily represent UNEP decisions or policies.