Production and consumption systems need fundamental rethink

News Published 20 Oct 2014 Last modified 31 Aug 2016, 02:08 PM
Production and consumption systems in the European Union have large, global impacts on the environment. More sustainable ways of satisfying our needs are emerging, but they need more support, according to a new assessment.

 Image © Polycart | Flickr.com

The way we live and how we produce things has a substantial impact beyond our borders. We can see that in a globalised world it is increasingly important that we fundamentally re-think how we consume and produce, to encourage true sustainability throughout the whole lifecycle of products.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director

The European Environment Agency's indicator report 2014 looks at the transition to a green economy with a focus on the global environmental impacts of the EU's production-consumption systems.

The report's launch coincides with the Global Green Growth Forum, being held in Copenhagen 20-21 October, where business leaders and decision makers are discussing how changing production and consumption patterns can bring about green growth.

European Union environmental policy is framed by the ambition to "live well within the limits of the planet" by 2050. Around half of some pressures from EU consumption are exerted outside the EU, including land use, water use and some air pollutant emissions, partly because consumer goods are increasingly produced abroad, the report notes.

Europe's globalised impact can be positive, for example providing many jobs and generating a significant portion of national income in the exporting countries. But it can have some negative side-effects – unsustainable trends including large amounts of food waste across the whole food value chain, surging consumption of cheap clothes and increasing electricity consumption by European households, despite many appliances becoming more energy-efficient.

Moreover, because the environmental and social effects of these trends are often exerted beyond Europe's borders they are difficult for European policy to influence and remain largely invisible to consumers.

The EU is also highly dependent on the rest of the world for raw materials. When imports and exports are compared, it is clear that around eight times as much raw material (by weight) is brought into the EU than exported. The extraction and transport of these materials puts significant environmental pressure on the global environment.

Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director, said: "The way we live and how we produce things has a substantial impact beyond our borders. In the past Europe has largely focused on policies to make European production more eco-efficient, but we can see that in a globalised world it is increasingly important that we fundamentally re-think how we consume and produce, to encourage true sustainability throughout the whole lifecycle of products."

There are some positive societal trends that show the potential for production and consumption systems to become more sustainable. For example, many people have started to consume in different ways as new technologies make it easier to do things collectively, from sharing cars and work tools to managing community gardens. Consumers are also becoming producers in many cases, which can have environmental benefits. This trend towards 'prosumerism' may mean selling the electricity from rooftop solar panels or cooperatively producing and distributing food.

Businesses can also play an important role, the report argues. Retailers have great power to influence the products people buy, for example by 'nudging' consumers towards more sustainable products or removing the most environmentally harmful choices altogether. New business models which use waste and take back used products may also help Europe use resources more efficiently. Nonetheless, these initiatives need more political support to flourish, the report states.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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