new column on sustainable consumption

In this first of a regular new series of exclusive columns, Andrew Schmidt, consultant at the Global SCP Clearinghouse, which is convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), introduces the concept of Sustainable Consumption and Production and invites Sustainable Cities Collective members to sign up and join the program.

In ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ Thomas Malthus warned us in 1798 that “…the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man”.

More than 200 years later, this prediction rings truer than ever, shaking us by the shoulders, so to speak, so that we might give it proper attention. Exploding urbanization is putting pressure on systems that have never felt it before and the tide does not show any sign of slowing.

While 1 billion people do not have enough to eat, nearly the same number are overweight or obese. Greenhouse gases are increasing, and so on… These types of statements are probably familiar to most readers.

Malthusian population growth graph

One over-arching concept which aims to chip away at these untenable patterns of living is known as Sustainable Consumption and Production, or SCP.

The idea of SCP involves doing more with less and decoupling economic growth from the increasing use of finite resources. One of the main features of SCP - its breadth - is at once an advantage and a challenge, a massive opportunity and a magnet for confusion.

The global scope of SCP means that it concerns multiple sectors such as food, waste, transport, tourism, procurement, lifestyles…and the list goes on.

The vastness of SCP is part of what defines it, for the entire idea is that a global shift must take place in the way we live, from waking up, going to work and coming home, towards more sustainable modes of consumption and production.

It can be seen as the thread that will weave together disparate elements of sustainable development. I say ‘will’ because the time has not come yet; SCP faces myriad challenges in its quest to harmonize with itself, and jump into the mainstream. The vastness of SCP has kept it out of the minds of most people not specifically involved in SCP work in one or several sectors.

How, then, can actors from different levels of society – governmnent, business, academia, civil society – find a common language and a common place to exchange information and share ideas on SCP? The problem has not been a lack of information but the opposite; an overload of efforts, which has convoluted SCP into something that the average person is not aware of and the specialists cannot sort through.

Imagine you work for a small NGO in central Africa, researching methods to improve crop yields in times of drought. Would it not be useful to know if someone else, maybe in a neighboring country or maybe halfway across the world, was involved in a similar endeavor? Different technologies, particularly the use of mobile phones, is exploding across the developing world, and the partisans of SCP should take note.

The time is ripe to mainstream SCP into the consciousness of an ever-increasing global middle class with more time and more resources. At the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, heads of state reaffirmed that promoting more sustainable modes of consumption and production is one of three overarching objectives of, and an essential requirement of sustainable development.

A text was adopted, the Ten Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP). The 10YFP is a global framework that will accelerate the shift to SCP in both the developed and developing world, through capacity building and by providing access to financial and technical assistance to countries.

The United Nations Environment Programme, acting as the secretariat of the 10YFP, launched in 2013 an online platform designed to take the overload of information on SCP in the world and bring it into one place. This platform, the Global SCP Clearinghouse, aims to be a one-stop hub where SCP stakeholders from all levels of society can come together to share information, find collaboration opportunities and promote the important work they are doing to a truly global audience.

The uniqueness of the Global SCP Clearinghouse is that it maintains the breadth of SCP – there are 17 ‘communities’ sorted both by region and theme – while at the same time permitting individuals from a specific discipline to zero in on relevant material.

To take one example, the community on sustainable cities and buildings brings together stakeholders from 100+ countries to submit projects, documents, upcoming events and participate in working groups and web conferences in order to coordinate across borders.

The sustainability of expanding cities and, and of those which are being created is at the forefront of policy making at all levels, from the municipal to the international.

The Global SCP Clearinghouse features initiatives such as the SBCI, SUSHI, and the K4C, which are trying to walk the fine line of SCP that distinguishes increasing growth from increasing resource use.

Urban crowd n BanglaDeshIf we hope to avoid the worst consequences predicted by Thomas Malthus, there needs to be more cooperation, more communication and more coordination moving forward.

Urbanization will continue at an astonishing rate, and so the best and most creative minds must come forward. Platforms such as the Global SCP Clearinghouse hope to be one cog in a network of increasing harmonization on a global scale of efforts to mainstream SCP.

To quote Mr. Malthus once more: “No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth; they may increase forever”. Of course they won't.

So we must now decide how to respond in a global, responsible manner to the challenges of sustainability so that these productions of the earth may instead be endlessly renewed. 

You can register to the Global SCP Clearinghouse at