Discussion: Sustainable Consumption

April 15, 2014

At the Imagine Change! forum on the theme “Sustainable Consumption,” the question on how governments could be motivated to be more green when they are donor-dependent was raised. It was suggested that since donors do look for good investment, we have an obligation to let our donors know if we think that we are compromising on environmental practices or social practices . Other compelling reasons include the value for money argument, and value to human health since cost of healthcare rises after environmental damage (for example in China).

Considering the fact that Bhutan is a small market, it was pointed out that Bhutan cannot influence the Indian market to move towards sustainable production and consumption. However, it was noted that Bhutan is one of many, and other markets are also considering sustainable procurement and suppliers will find larger markets all around the world if they make this transition.

Another concern raised was the use of private cars in Bhutan (especially Thimphu) not just as a medium for transportation but as status symbol and public transportation was offered as an alternative. Along the same lines, moving towards service economy and communal consumptions were suggested.

Another aspect of unsustainable consumption was Bhutanese increasingly using packaged goods as Tshog offerings in monasteries and for rituals because of convenience.  It was also pointed out that for an average Bhutanese it is very difficult to understand the full life cycle cost and similar aspects of sustainability. In the process, we not only become more ecologically unsustainable but also more careless about our motivation in making offerings (a practice meant to encourage more personal effort and mindfulness).

Some solutions suggested for sustainable living were: waste-to-energy plants, public transportation and carpooling, carrying own bag/container, sharing knowledge and information with family and friends, using local materials for building, connecting cooperatives with markets, and using media to spread right messages, education and changing our lifestyles and mindsets for sustainable living. Some major challenges were also discussed, most importantly the difficulty in practicing what we preach, fighting human desire and greed and the challenge posed by mass production and consumption.

Sharing some Buddhist perspective, one participant stated that sustainable consumption is nothing new and was in practice where we consumed to feed our need and not our greed. Inner thinking was deemed important in order to control our desires and practice contentment.

Some key points made at the forum were:

  • There is considerable focus on sustainable products (as in what goes into the products). However, there is an even bigger need to look into the demand side of things as (excessive) consumption is driving environmental degradation. Therefore even the most efficient or environmentally-friendly product will not help if we keep consuming excessively.
  • The opportunity for supply side would be to produce sustainably, make products durable and repairable and design for reuse, disassembly and recycling
  • The opportunity for demand side would be in collaborative consumption, product-service systems and consumption based on true need (sufficiency).
  • Green Public Procurement is one piece of a large puzzle, but is quite significant as the Bhutanese government spends about 60-70% of total budget in public procurement.
  • If governments demand and buy sustainable products, it will help spark a positive signal in the whole country and can have an important role in sustainable production and consumption discussion.
  • Long-term thinking is important when we want to make decisions in line with sustainability.
  • Political leadership is key.

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