A wealthy minority of the world's population is consuming at an unsustainably high level, causing disproportionate damage to global ecosystems, while protecting only their local environment. On the other hand, a poor, larger and rapidly-growing proportion of the world's population is being forced by poverty to degrade the natural resource base on which it is directly dependent.
With UNCED, the issue of changing consumption patterns was for the first time formally placed on the agenda for multilateral negotiations. The need to change those contemporary patterns of consumption and production which are detrimental to sustainable development was affirmed. In the context of differentiated responsibilities in this field, it is recognized that developed countries bear special responsibility and should take the lead by taking effective measures for change in their own countries.
The main economic agents whose behaviour as producers or consumers should be the target of policy measures are individual households, business and industry, and governments, especially in developed countries. Policies and measures to change production and consumption patterns should be predictable for producers and consumers and should be supportive of sustainable development. The price of a product should be related to its lifecycle costs.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.
Agenda 21 recommends that: all countries should strive to promote sustainable consumption patterns; in the follow-up to implementation of Agenda 21, reviewing the role and impact of unsustainable production and consumption patterns and lifestyles and their relation to sustainable development should be given high priority.
Prevention of pollution which results in cost reduction should also be recognized and encouraged with appropriate incentives. National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. Where vulnerable groups may already be affected by measures taken for environmental purposes, appropriate offsetting measures should be introduced.
Attention should be given to the special situation and needs of developing countries; for them, eradicating poverty and meeting basic human needs in the process of pursuing sustainable development are overriding priorities.
All countries should derive immediate and long-term benefits from establishing and maintaining more sustainable consumption and production patterns. Measures and steps to change consumption and production patterns should be pursued, especially in developed countries, [inter alia], by appropriate instruments, public awareness campaigns, adequate guidance in the field of advertising, education, information and advice for the purposes of: (a) conserving energy and using renewable sources of energy; (b) making greater use of public transport; (c) minimizing recycling and reusing waste; (d) reducing the quantity of packaging; (e) encouraging consumption of products produced by more environmentally sound processes and the development of environmentally sound products; (f) reducing the amount of water wasted; and (g) reducing environmentally harmful substances in products.
Agenda 21 calls for changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns. It demonstrates the critical relationship between such patterns and environmental degradation and poverty and it emphasizes the key role industrialized societies have to play. But Agenda 21 fails to identify clear objectives. Objectives need to be developed and then there needs to be agreement on the policies and indicators required to direct such policies and to monitor their progress.