Consuming unsustainably

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Article Published 27 Jun 2011 Last modified 11 May 2021
6 min read
Photo: © EEA/John McConnico
Key message: A major reason why consumption negatively affects the environment and causes over-use of resources is because the costs to society of environmental and resource degradation are not fully reflected in the prices of goods and services. Many goods are cheap even though they harm the environment, ecosystems or human health. (SOER 2010)

'The smoke started to blow over the farm late one evening. It wasn't nice. The ash was falling like snow,' says Guðni Þorvaldsson, who runs the family farm in southern Iceland, just 8 km from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. We had to move the sheep, lambs and some of the horses indoors. The sheep had to be checked every three hours because it was the lambing season. Everything was grey. The largest bits of ash were 3 cm. I left footprints in it like snow.'


Guðni Þorvaldsson and the rest of the Icelandic population were remarkably well prepared for the massive eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in March 2010. A sophisticated monitoring system using global satellite positioning technology continually measures active volcanoes on Iceland. The readings suggested that the volcano was increasing in height — a sure sign of volcanic activity inside the mountain. Other monitoring activities confirmed this. Combined with an effective public information system, it shows just how valuable environmental information can be.

The rest of the world was perhaps not as well prepared. The impacts became global within days, mostly as a result of the massive ash cloud that formed and its impacts on air traffic. The ash moved at between 20 000 and 36 000 feet — the same altitude range that airliners use. Air space was shut over Europe, which in turn grounded Europe-bound flights from as far away as Sydney. The International Air Transport Association estimated that airlines were losing USD 200 million a day in revenues.

Almost any industry relying on air transport was affected. In Kenya, plants, flowers and vegetables grown for the European market rotted in the baking sun with losses in the millions of Euros. It is estimated that during the first few days after the eruption, ten million flowers — mostly roses — were thrown away. Vegetables, such as asparagus, broccoli and green beans were fed to cattle instead of ending up on European dinner tables. Supplies of fresh tuna from Vietnam and the Philippines began to run out in Europe.

The eerily quiet skies over Europe in April 2010 served as a reminder of just how much air traffic there normally is. Stories about rotting flowers and vegetables in Kenya remind us where our some of our flowers and vegetables come from. Indeed, the eruption illustrated clearly the connectivity between some of the key systems — manmade and natural — underpinning our globalised society.

Our big foot

The Ecological Footprint is one of a number of measures used to illustrate the demands humanity places on the planet. The footprint has limitations but it is also a relatively easy concept to understand: it estimates the area of land and sea required to provide the resources we use and to absorb our waste.

In 2003 the European Union's Ecological Footprint was 2.26 billion global hectares or 4.7 global hectares per person. In contrast, Europe's total productive area was 1.06 billion global hectares or 2.2 global hectares per person (WWF, 2007).

If all the world's citizens were to live as Europeans do, humanity would need more than two and a half planets to provide the resources we consume, absorb our wastes and leave some capacity for wild species (WWF, 2007).

Earth Overshoot Day

Earth Overshoot Day marks the day in the calendar when humanity's consumption of ecological resources that year is equal to what nature can produce in 12 months. It's the day our collective pay packet runs out and we start borrowing from the planet.

In 2010, the Global Footprint Network estimated that by August 21 humanity had used up all the ecological services — from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food — that nature could safely provide for all of that year. From August 21 until the end of the year, our ecological demands were met by depleting resource stocks and accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Did you know? An average European citizen uses about four times more resources than one in Africa and three times more than one in Asia, but half of one in USA, Canada or Australia.

SOER 2010

Feeding our habit

Both the ‘Global Footprint’ and ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ are rough estimates. But we know for certain that our demand for natural resources worldwide has increased tremendously over recent decades. The main drivers have been growth in population, wealth and consumption. Most of the population growth has taken place in developing countries while the highest levels of wealth and consumption are in developed countries.

In Europe we maintain our ecological deficit — the difference between our footprint and our biocapacity — by importing goods and services from beyond our borders. We also export some of our waste. Essentially, we are becoming increasingly less self-sufficient.

As a result of growing global trade, an increasing share of the environmental pressures and impacts caused by consumption in EU Member States are felt elsewhere. While some of this shift is between EU Member States, a large part is outside the EU and beyond the reach of current EU production-related policies. This means we are exporting the impacts of our consumption to countries where environmental policy is often underdeveloped — effectively putting the local populations and environment under extreme pressure.

Global consumption is causing major, irreversible impacts on global ecosystems: 130 000 km2 of tropical rainforest are being cleared each year. In addition, since 1960 a third of the world's farmland has been abandoned or exhausted as a result of overexploitation and soil degradation.*

Breaking the cycle

We need to become better at balancing the need to preserve natural capital and using it to fuel the economy. Increasing the efficiency of resource use is a key response. Recognising that our demands on natural systems are currently unsustainable, we basically need to do more with less.

Encouragingly, this is an area where the interests of the environmental and commercial sectors can be aligned: businesses prosper or falter based on their ability to extract maximum value from inputs, just as preserving the natural world and human wellbeing depends on us doing more with a limited flow of resources.

Resource efficiency is now a flagship initiative in the EU — a crucial element of the strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth by 2020. Resource efficiency combines the principles of good business with good environmental practice by making more while reducing waste. It's like combining a healthier diet with an exercise regime — after a while you learn that you can do more with less.

* For more information see SOER thematic assessments: consumption and the environment

Purchasing power

Our consumption patterns of eating, driving or heating our homes, leads directly to environmental pressures. Of greater magnitude, however, are the indirect pressures that are created along the production chains of the goods and services consumed. This could be the impacts from mining or harvesting, the use of water to grow crops, or damage to local biodiversity from intensive farming or pollution.

As consumers, however, we can influence our environmental impacts, for example by purchasing sustainably produced food and fibres.

Globally, organic production and 'conservation farming' are gaining in popularity and success. The Conservation Cotton Initiative is just one example of sustainable approaches to production that lessen impacts on local environments.

CottonInnovation: clothing

The Conservation Cotton Initiative

The Conservation Cotton Initiative Uganda (CCIU) was created by ethical clothing company EDUN, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Invisible Children to build sustainable farming communities in Uganda.

'CCIU is based in one of the poorest area of Uganda, Gulu District, an area recovering from a civil war, which displaced millions. The CCIU Programme assists farmers who are returning to their land by providing funding, tools, and training to grow a sustainable cotton business,' says Bridget Russo, Global Marketing Director, EDUN.

Farmers are trained to extend their fields by growing a combination of rotational food crops to meet their families' basic needs, and cotton, a cash crop for which there is international demand. Currently there are 3 500 farmers benefitting from the CCIU Programme and there are plans to increase this to 8 000 over the next three years.

This collaboration aims to improve the livelihoods of communities in Africa by supporting farmers to sustainably harvest conservation cotton.