Shifting from materials-intensive growth in developed countries

Achieving dematerialized economy
Decoupling materialism from quality of life
Dematerializing resource dependency
Reducing materials-intensity
Dissociating wellbeing from levels of material consumption.
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.

The OECD has proposed that its members strive as a long-range goal to decrease their materials intensity by a factor of ten.

In the industrialized economies particularly, technological innovations have led to greater efficiency in energy and materials use, with many products being reduced in size and weight through the use of lighter materials such as aluminium in place of steel, and plastics in place of metals. Improved technologies mean that recycling rates for many key raw materials have also increased. In addition, demand has shifted away from heavy goods towards less-material intensive products, consumer goods and service industries.

A first step in a dematerialized economy is to shift from a society in which production and consumption are based on the use of primary raw materials to a society in which production and consumption become based on the use of secondary raw materials. For instance, at present durable goods such as audio-visual equipment, computers, refrigerators, washing machines, cars and furniture are used once and then cast off to the waste-dump or incinerator. In this way a great deal of mineral resources are used in a very inefficient manner. Instead, durable products could be developed that can be easily repaired or dismantled so that all elements can be re-used or recycled.

Other actions towards reaching a dematerialized economy include: redirecting fiscal systems to increase the prices of natural resources and to depenalize human labour; introducing incentive and disincentive systems, such as tradable permits for pollution, hunting, fishing, mining and the use of recreational land; articulating a fundamentally new vision of development policy, especially with respect to technology transfer; reforming the educational systems by integrating resource-preserving concepts at all levels; developing a new culture of learning that derives its concepts from an integrative, synthetic model as opposed to conventional reductionist approaches; reassessing the centrality of material, energy and land consumption; reversing/reorienting the incentive structures which presently discourage ecologically sensible behaviour; abolishing, shifting or reversing subsidies; reissuing codes and standards according to ecological guidelines; agreeing upon simple measures for assessing the ecological impact intensity of processes, infrastructures, systems, products and services; developing measures of real wealth; introducing internationally harmonized labelling and certification systems for processes, products and services; supporting the diffusion of know-how by issuing compendia of innovations and technological solutions; encouraging the trends in product design and service delivery toward more eco-efficient solutions; establishing islands of sustainability that are both carriers of social innovation and models of what is possible; encouraging research and development both in areas of sustainable technology and social change and adaptation; above all, stabilizing and decreasing global population by peaceful means and promoting equitable welfare worldwide.

In the USA, the per capita consumption of raw materials such as forestry products and metals has, measured by weight, declined steadily over the past twenty years. The World Resources Institute stated that the declining "materials intensity" of the economy -- that is, "the total material input and the hidden or indirect material flows, including deliberate landscape alterations" required for each dollar's worth of economic output -- supports the conclusion that economic activity is growing somewhat more rapidly than natural resource use.

Economic growth can, to some extent, be delinked from growth in resource use. Per capita use rates for steel, timber and copper, for example, have generally stabilized or even declined in the OECD countries. Resource intensity (the quantity of energy and materials required for constant economic output) has fallen by about 2 per cent per year since 1970 (Glyn 1995).

Accomplishing radical dematerialization can be expected to take at least half a century. The main challenge is to adjust prices such that labour is decisively cheaper relative to energy and materials. It must become attractive to put kilowatt hours out of work instead of people. It is in the interest of labour unions that resource productivity in the society is expanded. On the one hand, it will lead to a higher level of consumption over the long-term, while on the other hand it will help in the transition from a resource-intensive to labour-intensive or even capital-intensive production, and in many cases lead to the creation of new jobs, especially due to a shift from production to repair work.
Counter Claim:
Consumption of energy and most raw materials continues to rise in countries which still have population growth. Resource intensity in developing countries is still high, though there is evidence that efficiency is improving.
Factor 10 Institute
Type Classification:
C: Cross-sectoral strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 2: Zero HungerGOAL 3: Good Health and Well-beingGOAL 4: Quality EducationGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 10: Reduced InequalityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and ProductionGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 14: Life Below WaterGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong InstitutionsGOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal