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Sustainable Lifestyles: From individulal responsibility to collective impact

By Dr Steafnos Fotiou
Head of Cities & Lifestyles Unit, UNEP

UNEPCities.ClimateSection.PortraitA basic assumption we should make in the process of understanding better the relations between sustainability as a long term concept and our daily life is that all of us (either as individuals or as institutions) have a share of the responsibility to deliver a better planet to the next generations. And the way we exercise this responsibility is demonstrated and materialised through the choices we make. And while the choices and decisions of institutions are emerging via policies, the decisions and choices of individuals are emerging via lifestyles.

The concept of sustainable lifestyles has emerged over the last 20 years within the global efforts to promote Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP). They are broadly defined as “patterns of action and consumption, used by people to affiliate and differentiate themselves from others, which: meet basic needs, provide a better quality of life, minimise the use of natural resources and emissions of waste and pollutants over the lifecycle, and do not jeopardise the needs of future generations ”. While this definition could be applied to every society at any development stage we need to acknowledge that for someone to demonstrate a sustainable lifestyle needs to have:

• Available market options (in terms of available goods and services) that will help her/him to make sustainable choices;

• Access to these options from both a physical and economic point of view;

• Capacity to evaluate the sustainability of the options that is on offer.

It is quite often supported that a number of small things we can do as citizens or consumers have the potential to influence sustainability. We have all heard messages like “take a shower instead of a bath” (and what about the millions of people without access to water?) and “consume organic food instead of agriculture produces grown by industrial methods” (and what about the millions without access to basic food?). Even if we assume that a big number of individuals has the necessary options, access and capacity to make sustainable choices, can se assume that all such individual acts will result on a collective and big impact?

The answer to this question depends on the conditions upon which these choices are made and the way the results of these decisions are projected in the overall socio-economic system. To be able to add all the good results of individual choices to big collective impact we must make sure that some other conditions are also met.

We need first to acknowledge that individual action and small environmental choices is a necessary condition for sustainability to happen; but it is not sufficient. Still, government has a critical role in harvesting these small opportunities. As a recent UNEP report reveals “pro-environment actions can only be sustained or scaled up if a broader culture of sustainability is developed and institutionalised, and true sustainability driven innovation is fostered. In this case, these actions can contribute and become part of the norm, supported by the necessary systems and infrastructure ”. For sustainable lifestyles to be part of our cultures and societies and become part of our everyday lives, they must be enabled and developed at all levels, through the social and technical systems and institutions that surround us.

We need also to make sure that any action on promoting sustainable lifestyles results in a fair distribution or responsibility among the people. There are many studies showing that people will welcome pro-active sustainability polices, including economic measures, provided that: i) these policies and measures are justified; ii) any economic benefits derived are used for the common wellbeing; and iii) that the distribution of economic burden is done under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility.

We further need to ensure that the results of individual actions when aggregated are not measured only in relative terms but in absolute numbers as well. There is a tendency to calculate sustainability gains in relative terms – relative to no gains at all. This approach holds up the unsustainable business-as-usual scenario as the default, bar a few quick fixes. Yet, while sustainability initiatives are growing, the unsustainable ones are growing at a faster rate, cancelling out all the gains. Relative gains do not solve the problem if the whole system remains unsustainable.

To make individual choices part of a much bigger collective result on sustainable development we need a big focus on education, knowledge, awareness and information. We need to provide knowledge, values and skills to enable individuals and societies to go beyond responsible consumption and become actors of change.

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