Oslo Rountable on Sustainable Production and Consumption
1.2 Defining sustainable consumption

The Oslo Symposium in 1994 proposed a working definition of sustainable consumption as “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimising the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations”.

Sustainable consumption is an umbrella term that brings together a number of key issues, such as meeting needs, enhancing the quality of life, improving resource efficiency, increasing the use of renewable energy sources, minimising waste, taking a life cycle perspective and taking into account the equity dimension. Integrating these component parts is the central question of how to provide the same or better services to meet the basic requirements of life and the aspirations for improvement for both current and future generations, while continually reducing environmental damage and risks to human health. A key issue is therefore the extent to which necessary improvements in environmental quality can be achieved through the substitution of more efficient and less polluting goods and services (patterns of consumption), rather than through reductions in the volumes of goods and services consumed (levels of consumption). Political reality in democratic societies is such that it will be much easier to change consumption patterns than consumption volumes, although both issues need to be addressed.

Underlying the current debate on sustainable consumption is a growing awareness that reforms in national economic policies are required to ensure that goods and services reflect environmental costs and so stimulate more sustainable production and consumption patterns. At the same time, countries are continuing to increase their income and gross national product. It is possible to increase incomes while reducing resource use. However, the risk remains that an increasing volume of consumption will more than outweigh improvements in energy and resource efficiencies. There will be occasions when opportunities for economic growth conflict with moves towards sustainable consumption. All actors need to be aware of such possible conflicts. If sustainable consumption is to be achieved, then it will become increasingly necessary in such situations to put sustainability first. This will not necessarily require economic sacrifices: indeed welfare and employment may be increased.


Getting the world onto a sustainable consumption trajectory will take decades. Current capital stocks of physical infrastructure, for example in housing, energy, transportation and waste management, can lock societies into unsustainable patterns of consumption over which individual consumers have little influence. Furthermore, many unsustainable patterns of consumption are deeply rooted in cultural habits, despite increasing evidence that many citizens are now ready to re- examine their lifestyles. As a result, action to develop infrastructures and cultural norms that enable rather than constrain sustainable consumption choices will have to take place gradually, with the full participation of all stakeholders. This realisation should not, however, obscure the wealth of options that already exist for governments, business and individuals to make a decisive shift in consumption patterns towards sustainability.


Agenda 21 recognised the great imbalances in global and national patterns of consumption and production. At the international level, action to change demand and lifestyles in the developed world must take place within a global dialogue that addresses the dual challenges of improving both the environmental quality and equity of consumption. Although it is clear that the levels of consumption of the world's poor must increase, the distribution of income and wealth will not be changed by demand-side measures to promote sustainable patterns of consumption. Since consumption, sustainable or unsustainable, depends on a number of conditions such as effective purchasing power and control over natural resources, other measures will be needed to provide the necessary resources for the poor to meet their needs. Combating poverty is also a critical element of sustainability, and it will be discussed separately by the CSD.

Changing consumption patterns in the developed world also needs to be managed in ways that increases the opportunities for sustainable development in the developing world. There are numerous products with environmental advantages, which are produced by developing countries and which can improve the added value of production. They can be substituted for environmentally less desirable products, either as inputs to the production process, or as consumption goods. Increased utilization of these products could help to reduce environmental stress without impairing consumer satisfaction, while at the same time increasing the foreign exchange resources of developing countries.

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