Now is the time to act #ForNature - consumer advocacy can lead the way

World Environment Day 2020

Today is World Environment Day and the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) message is clear – it’s time #ForNature! Consumers International represents more than 200 consumer advocacy groups in 100 countries and through some of our work we have shown that consumer engagement is critical to help preserve biodiversity and take action for #ForNature.

In our blog to mark the day, our Sustainable Consumption Manager, Naomi Scott-Mearns, explores the potential for consumers, and consumer advocacy, to be a powerful actor in taking action to preserve biodiversity across the globe.

1. Consumers can be powerful actors in helping preserve biodiversity, but choices must be easy.

Consumers International wants sustainable consumption to be the easy choice for consumers. But the information provided to consumers to make more sustainable choices is not always clear or actionable, leading to reported confusion.

Ecolabels can be an important visual way of communicating about biodiversity conservation to consumers. For example, the blue fish (Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)) label showing sustainable seafood, and the green frog (Rainforest Alliance) label showing the sustainably certified farms, forests and tourist destinations. Consumer engagement and recognition of ecolabels is important and can help to encourage more sustainable purchasing patterns, but it can take time to build consumer trust and recognition of an ecolabel. There is increasing evidence of more consumers buying products with certified ecolabels: from 2016 to 2018 the number of products showcasing the EU Ecolabel has increased by 85%.

Our recent report with UNEP “Can I Recycle This?”, recognises the impact of plastic pollution on the environment: globally, only about 9% of plastic waste has been recycled and about 12% has been incinerated. This has negative consequences for biodiversity, with more than 200 known species being negatively affected by plastic pollution in the marine environment. In the terrestrial environment, foodchains are showing increasing contamination with microplastics which could have health effects on a large range of living creatures. Our report calls for better plastics labelling as a simple and powerful way to reduce plastic pollution: it helps consumers to buy more recyclable and recycled products and to dispose of them correctly.

2. When it comes to informing consumers of how their choices impact biodiversity and the planet, we need to be creative and innovate!

The IPCC (2019) report on climate change and land highlights the link between dietary decisions and impacts on biodiversity, land degradation and climate change. The report calls for a shift to more plant-based diets and a reduction in meat consumption globally. It outlines that behaviour change amongst all consumers is required.

Yet, it can be difficult to invoke a ‘sense of caring’ amongst consumers of a problem which seems far-removed from them. Ant Forest is an excellent example of how this can be done - by rewarding consumers for green behaviour (e.g. travelling by public transport) with credits which contribute to planting a tree. Consumers can view the actual trees they have helped to plant via satellite images. In 2017, there were 200 million users of Ant Forest, which equates to almost 3% of the world’s population. Gamification, like Ant Forest, helps biodiversity conservation to be the fun and easy choice for consumers.

Preserving biodiversity for #GreenActionWeek

Engaging consumers in protecting biodiversity can be achieved in a variety of ways. Consumers International’s members have demonstrated this diversity through their Green Action Week campaigns. Green Action Week is an annual campaign promoting sustainable consumption through engaging consumers around a specific theme. The theme for 2018 – 2020 is ‘Sharing Community’ and our members will be showcasing ways that sharing and collaboration can bring more equal and sustainable access to goods and services for the benefit of people and the planet.

Supporting consumers to play an active role in biodiversity conservation has been an aim of several campaigns run by our members. In Malaysia, Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) is committed to tackling decreasing levels of biodiversity by promoting seed saving and sharing among farmers, gardeners and the public. They aim to reintroduce traditional hardy varieties of seeds, minor crops, local species of vegetables and rare herbs by hosting a live seed sharing fair for gardeners and farmers, with an adjacent online seed sharing network established. Additionally, our member in Togo, the Association Togolaise des Consommateurs (ATC), centred its 2019 Green Action Week campaign around the fight against the disappearance of medicinal plant biodiversity in Togo. These plants, which can be used to improve health and ensure food security, lack protection because knowledge within communities around their maintenance and protection is disappearing. ATC’s campaign enabled rural and urban communities to collaborate, exchange knowledge and share the plants amongst themselves.

3. COVID-19 makes the fight #ForNature even more urgent

In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, more needs to be done to protect biodiversity and act #ForNature now. In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published research indicating that 75% of all newly emerging infectious diseases were zoonotic: traced from animals. This rise in the incidence of zoonotic diseases has been linked to the health of ecosystems and biodiversity. The decline of biodiversity as a result of human behaviour, including destruction of habitats, urbanisation and human-induced climate change, is causing a closer interaction between animals, plants and humans. This is leading to more chance of zoonotic diseases emerging.

COVID-19 is affecting consumers everywhere. Our COVID-19 webpage shares regular updates on how consumer advocacy is taking action to protect consumers by sharing advice that can help halt the spread of infection, reduce deaths and soften the damaging economic impacts of the pandemic. As we begin to rebuild our societies and economies in response to the devastating impact of the virus, we must seize the opportunity to invest in the urgently needed shift to sustainable consumption. Now is the time to act #ForNature, and consumer advocacy can lead the way.