Thinking beyond wretched excess

OECD Observer

Towards Sustainable Household Consumption? Trends and Policies in OECD Countries

The impact of households on air and water pollution, waste generation and climate change has worsened over the last three decades and, without radical change, are expected to intensify even more in the next 20 years, according to this OECD report.

Consider these figures: energy use in OECD countries grew by 36% from 1973-1998 and is expected to grow another 35% by 2020 despite efficiency gains; municipal waste is projected to grow by 43% in the same period, from 540 to 700 million tonnes per year; and technological innovations, which have reduced the energy and material intensity of many consumer goods, have been offset by the booming increase in the excess of goods and services that are consumed and discarded.

How can governments reverse these trends, and help households develop less polluting, less material-intensive lifestyles? Surely without change, sustainable development will be out of reach. They could use taxes, yet many environmentally related taxes are already paid by households on the purchase or use of motor vehicles and fuels.

Could governments influence consumer tastes and preferences or lean on economic instruments or advertising to push consumers to more sustainable practices?

This report urges better regulatory standards and integrating policies in such areas as land-use, infrastructure investment and macroeconomic policies.

Addressing the spiralling interaction of consumption and production will depend not only on consumers, but also on co-operation from government and business.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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