Sustainability and Sustainable Consumption

Sustainability and Sustainable Consumption

 By T. Vijayendra, Hyderabad, India

Life on Earth can be divided in two groups—producers (trees and grasses, for example) and consumers (such as animals and human beings). The difference between the two is that producers—like plants—produce their own food whereas consumer species like animals—humans included—live directly or indirectly on food produced by the producer species (think plant life).

To sustain themselves, humans consume goods and services not only from plant and animal sources but also from inanimate sources such as minerals. These resources are either renewable or non-renewable resources. Non-renewable resources, like fossil fuels, minerals, and metals, are finite in nature by definition. In other words, the more we use them, their supply will deplete. Renewable sources, like plants, trees and agriculture, are by definition renewed in nature; both by natural processes and helped by human efforts.

Now, a simple way to explain sustainability:  If we consume resources in such a way that the resources we need and enjoy can also be available to succeeding generations (as well as for all other forms of life) for their needs and enjoyment at a level needed by them and for a foreseeable future.

This issue of sustainability was not a big problem in human history because our population was small and our levels of resource consumption per capita were also small. Today, both the consumption levels and our population have increased substantially. As a result, the way we live and consume resources is NOT sustainable!

To achieve sustainability, the first thing we need to do is we must reduce our per capita consumption. Secondly, more of it should come from renewable resources.

There is an interesting fact about most non-renewable resources. Be it the fuel used for transport (petrol for cars, for example), chemical pesticides in agriculture, cement used in housing and construction, or the plastics used for packaging, they almost always tend to pollute and add to the climate change (and global warming) problem. This is one more important reason for us to reduce the component of non-renewable resources in our consumption.

Value Chain

What is a value chain? It is the chain of values [the term “value” used here is a business term, and not a “value” in the normal sense] added to a product from the source till it reaches the consumer. Let us explain this more:

If we climb a tree and eat its fruit, there is no value chain. But most of us buy the goods we consume. For example, apples are grown on trees in an orchard (likely, in a rural area), picked, packed and transported to the urban centers where we live. In the city we can buy fruits and vegetables either from a pushcart or a farmer’s market, or in a supermarket. So ‘value’ gets added to the produce in a chain consisting of picking, packing, transporting and retail selling. Now, if the apples were converted into apple juice, involving some processing, there would be even more links in the value chain and hence more value would be added.

There is a difference between fruits and vegetables sold by a street vendor (or at the farmer’s market) and in a supermarket. It is not difficult to understand that the “value” added to it in a supermarket is much more. This extra value is called a shelf rent – which can include the rent of the place, worker salaries, utilities, and air conditioning, etc. You might also notice that a big chunk of the difference comes from the non-renewable resources used for transportation and processing, etc., contributing to pollution and climate change. This makes it less sustainable.

We can add some more attributes to sustainability. Instead of an apple, suppose it was a locally produced vegetable or fruit, and sold directly by the person who produced and harvested it. It will then have much less value added, and it will be more sustainable.

We can extend this logic to other sectors of our activities. Locally produced food is more sustainable as we have seen above. Similarly, mud houses, straw-bale houses, or houses made using local materials like bricks or wood can be more sustainable, not only because of the material used, but also because less energy is used in heating, lighting and keeping them cool during the summer months (or warmer in cold climates). In fact, heating and air conditioning uses a lot of energy.

To mention another example, neighborhood schools can reduce transportation costs and so would more use of bicycles for small distances. In many cases, sustainable products are more ‘expensive’. While ‘value added’ can be calculated, price is determined by a variety of unpredictable factors, which have a lot to do with politics and the prevailing social order in human societies.

To work towards sustainability, we can use these four general principles:

  1. Consume less.
  2. What we consume should have a higher proportion of materials from renewable resources.
  3. The value chain from the source to consumer (or end-user) should be as short as possible, so that ‘value addition’ is reduced. That is, we need to consume local products as much as possible.
  4. The components of the value chain should use as little of non-renewable resources as possible. For example, the transportation can be done with animal carts or bicycles or hand pushed carts. The packaging can be minimal. Consumers can carry their own bags—paper or cloth bags—instead of plastic carry bags and so on. The main idea here is to reduce waste by recycling and reusing resources, or closing the loop in the resource use cycle.

Our power plants, factories, automobiles, machines and buildings need to be adapted so they use predominantly renewable energy resources instead of non-renewable resources that come from underground (fossil fuels) and emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants when burned.

Acknowledgement

The main ideas of this article were developed by Soujanya Mantravadi in 2017 for a talk on International Hawkers’ Day at Lamakaan, Hyderabad, India.

T. Vijayendra (b. 1943) is political-social activist, living in India. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats of South India, and watching birds, writing fiction and educational articles at his home in Hyderabad. He has published several books. He has been a ‘dedicated’ bicyclist all his life; he has never driven a fossil-fuel based vehicle (automobile). Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com

An earlier version of this article was also published in CounterCurrents.org (an online journal, published from Kerala, India) along with the above photo of street vendors of fruits and vegetables in Hyderabad, India. 

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