If the economy is circular, what shape is the consumer?

Whatever it looks like on the official reports, try to remember: out there it’s muddy and messy.

Policy and business may appear to be moving towards greater sustainability but what about the rest of us? David Fell is concerned about the demand side.

We’ve come a long way since the Brundtland Report in 1987 placed the environment in plain sight on the political agenda. We have the global Paris Agreement on climate change. We have the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We have the UK Climate Change Act 2008 and the Climate Change Committee. We have (just) the EU circular economy package.

We also have pretty much every major business taking sustainability seriously. No self-respecting multi-national corporation can get by these days without a strategy to “reduce our environmental impact,” to “work together to manage resources in a way which has a positive influence on the natural environment and the communities in which we operate” or even to “make sustainable living commonplace”.

We have remarkable growth in the world’s supply of renewable energy; rapidly growing awareness of the impact of plastic on the world’s eco-systems; declining levels of global poverty; and rising standards of animal welfare. And we have a discourse in the world of economics that is surely encouraging. Economists such as Richard Thaler, Elinor Olstrom and Daniel Kahneman have won the Nobel prize (2017, 2009 and 2002 respectively); august institutions such as the British Academy are inquiring into the notion of “sustainable prosperity”; and ever-greater coverage is being given to economic approaches concerned with bringing about a more sustainable future.

“The notion of the informed consumer is tosh.”

Wonderful. We’re on the right track. Everything’s going to be fine. Sadly no. Despite all the apparent progress, it’s too top down and it’s all on the supply side.

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