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Event summary: Relevance and meanings of sustainable consumption in Asia

This January, the Future Earth Regional Centre for Asia organised an international event on Sustainable Consumption in Asia. This event included a public symposium on 15 January, held in collaboration with Kyoto University, and a workshop on 16 January at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN). During the two days, participants explored the relevance and meanings of sustainable consumption in Asia, in particular in low- and middle-income countries. The event aimed to strengthen the recently-launched Future Earth Knowledge-Action Network on Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production.

Many of today’s unsustainable trends, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and increasing socioeconomic inequality, are closely related to society’s patterns of consumption and production. The need for drastic changes in these patterns has been recognised for a long time in the international policy arena. For example, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was agreed on in 2015, underscores the need for “fundamental changes in the way that our societies produce and consume goods and services.” However, despite this strong recognition and a large number of related initiatives by governments, businesses and the private sector, a major shift in patterns of consumption and production remains elusive.

Most existing research on sustainable consumption and production comes from the Global North. The relevance of this knowledge to the Global South, where consumption tends to be relatively small, is questionable. Exploring where and how existing knowledge might be relevant in Asia, and identifying what new knowledge is needed, is a high priority for the sustainable consumption and production research community.

These are some of the insights that emerged from the event:

  • The number of middle-class consumers in Asia has grown rapidly in recent years, but in most Asian countries, these groups still have limited buying power compared to similar consumers in the Global North. For example, in India the household expenditure among the wealthiest 5% of the population is at par with the poorest 20% in the United States when differences in local prices are accounted for.  
  • The concept of “leapfrog development,” in which societies try to skip over certain high-polluting or resource-intensive stages of development and move directly to more sustainable practices, appears to have a potential role in Asia’s future development. It involves not only the early deployment of better technologies but also the emergence of new lifestyles and behaviours, such as non-motorised urban mobility.
  • When exploring opportunities to promote more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns, researchers must be aware of a country’s history. For example, India’s experience of colonisation, including both the institutional heritage from the colonisation period and the critique of Western consumerism that was part of the nation’s liberation movement, is important to consider. 
  • Asia is a highly diverse region, not at least in terms of how governance works in practice. This has implications for how social changes can be pursued.
  • The current wave of automation and the broadening application of artificial intelligence will have profound implications for Asia, affecting not only livelihoods but also consumption opportunities.
  • Globally, various groups have developed a number of voluntary certification schemes to promote products with lower environmental impacts and fairer production conditions. However, most of these schemes, such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, are still not very common in Asia.
  • Through their purchasing patterns, governments have a significant role to play in shaping more sustainable patterns of production and consumption.
  • The problems of persistent poverty and resource-intensive, outsised consumption are related and cannot be effectively addressed separately. This applies at different levels, such globally and within nations.
  • More research and practitioner engagement should focus on the relationships that shape complex, globalised value chains, connecting low-income producers, powerful investors and corporations and wealthy consumers.
  • Cities are another potentially fruitful area for research and engagement. In urban areas, public procurement could serve as an entry point for wider explorations of local factors that contribute to shaping residents’ lifestyles and consumption patterns. 
  • The sustainable consumption and production research field is highly complex and strongly influenced by power asymmetries. This makes it difficult for researchers engaging with practice to remain neutral and requires a high level of reflectivity – the ability to see how research questions, ways of framing issues, types of data or analytical methods may be better aligned with the interests of certain actor groups than with others. Researchers can seek to be open about their normative ideals and values than try to appear neutral.
  • While many researchers and campaigners emphasise the need for changes in dominant economic and political systems, it is still meaningful to engage with policy and business practitioners to take on experiments, joint learning and trust building exercises.

Download the summary in PDF.

Webpage for The 6th International Symposium for Future Earth in Asia on Sustainable Consumption in Asia