Canada and Agenda 21

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Chapter 4

Changing Consumption Patterns

-- Elizabeth May --

"Our enormously productive economy...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption...We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate."

(U.S. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow in the "Journal of Retailing" at the end of the Second World War, quoted in Durning, How Much is Enough?)

Elizabeth May is the Executive Director of Cultural Survival Canada and the Sierra Club of Canada. The views expressed in this chapter are those of the author who has received input from a number of stakeholders and do not necessarily represent the views of the Projet de Société.


A major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries. This pattern is well documented in global terms. As the Brundtland Report pointed out, global inequities are not sustainable. The population of the industrialized world, roughly 20% of the planet, consumes 80% of the resources and produces a similar level of waste. Excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer segments of humanity place immense stress on the environment. The poorer segments, meanwhile, are unable to meet basic food, health-care, shelter and educational needs.

Chapter 4 of Agenda 21 suggests that the demand for natural resources generated by unsustainable consumption be examined and that ways be found of using resources that minimize depletion and reduce pollution. Achieving sustainable development will require efficiency in production and changes in consumption patterns, which in many instances, will require reorientation of existing production and consumption patterns in developed societies.


There are two main program areas in Chapter 4.

(1) Focusing on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption:

promote patterns of consumption and production that reduce environmental stress and will meet the basic needs of humanity; and,

develop a better understanding of the role of consumption and how to bring about more sustainable consumption patterns.

(2) Developing national policies and strategies to encourage changes in unsustainable consumption patterns:

promote efficiency in production processes and reduce wasteful consumption in the process of economic growth, taking into account the development needs of developing countries;

develop a domestic policy framework that will encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption; and,

reinforce both values that encourage sustainable production and consumption patterns and policies that encourage the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries.


1.Official Canadian Position

At Rio, the Canadian Government had the following three main objectives:

(1)to bring the goals of this chapter into line with Green Plan objectives;

(2)to shift the debate over consumption patterns from the moral arena to an economic forum, and pursue the development of market mechanisms by which to address correctly the environmental costs of product consumption and material on energy use; and,

(3)to expand programs that educate and inform consumers about their role in minimizing the wasteful use of resources, and that help them make wise choices in the marketplace.

2.Non-Governmental Organizations

Canadian NGOs from the environment, development, peace, women's, and youth communities increasingly recognize that consumption issues must be dealt with head-on in order to solve the environment and development crisis. The alternative treaty negotiated at Rio (see below) stresses this reality.

Through the Rio process and beyond, the NGOs in Canada conducted and are continuing to conduct, a lively debate. NGOs are increasingly making links between the globalization of trade, the disenfranchisement of small communities and the widening gap between the very rich and the very poor. Evidence from around the world suggests that globally as well as domestically in the industrialized and developing world, the gap between wealthy elites and the larger masses of poor is growing.

The NGO critique on unsustainable consumption patterns increasingly challenges the notion of economic growth as the sine qua non to economic activity. Thus NGOs were highly critical of Chapter 4 for its reference to "sustainable economic growth". As Herman Daly and John Cobb pointed out rather sharply in their treatise, For the Common Good, "sustainable development" need not be an oxymoron, but "sustainable growth" most surely is.

3. Business and Industry

The business community has a major role to play with regard to changing consumption patterns. No specific submissions were made by business for this chapter. It is none the less clear that changes in consumption patterns must be supported by business and in turn these changes will drive the transition to sustainability.

The business community in Canada supports the notion that healthy investment climates and the free operation of the marketplace will lead to the betterment of all peoples and reduce, over-time, the unsustainable nature of consumption patterns. Business and industry see the transition to sustainability as most supported through open market economies, and the globalization of trade and commerce.

4. Indigenous

Indigenous people consistently draw the comparison between the unsustainable gap between rich and poor globally, and the similar gap between native and non-native communities in Canada.

Indigenous Peoples and elders stated that because society is based on materialism, rather than centres on "spirituality"; industrialized societies will be on a continuous cycle of accumulation, greed and exploitation without ever finding satisfaction. All societies must reconnect with a spirituality and value system which supports sustainable development.


1. Legally-Binding Documents


2. Political Pronouncements

While no specific commitments relating to consumption were made, some political statements bear on this issue. For example, at the signing of the Biodiversity Convention, former Prime Minister Mulroney observed that it was unfair and unacceptable that developing countries transferred more money to the industrialized world in interest on their debt than they received in aid. It is not unrelated to the topic of consumption patterns that Canada committed to the 0.7% (of GNP) target for Overseas Development Assistance.

3. Alternative NGO Treaties and Kari-Oca

NGO Treaties

At the same time as UNCED, two major international events were also held at Rio. One was the International Non-Governmental Organization Forum (Global Forum). At the Global Forum, 3,100 NGOs discussed a number of matters related to environment and development and produced a parallel set of documents: an NGO Earth Charter and 38 Alternative NGO Treaties. Of these treaties, three addressed the issues discussed in Chapter 4.

The Treaty on Consumption and Lifestyle, Treaty on Alternative Economic Models, and the Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility all address issues related to consumption patterns.

To counteract ever expanding consumption and production, the NGOs agreed that it was essential to develop new cultural and ethical values, transform economic structure, and reorient our lifestyles. Recognizing that the quality of life is not dependent on increased consumption of non-basic material goods, NGOs made a commitment to assess individual lifestyle choices and, on a broader basis, to participate with business and industry, government, academia, voluntary and community organizations, political groups, church groups, and others to examine jointly the ways we can improve our consumption and production patterns to meet basic human needs around the world.

NGOs emphasize that an alternative, ecologically sustainable economy will be required to effect environmentally sustainable production and consumption patterns. They also believe that environmental education, both individual and collective, will play a central role in shaping values and social action. Therefore they agreed to promote and participate in environmental education activities such as training for environmental conservation, preservation and management as part of the exercise of local and planetary citizenship.


The second alternative forum at Rio was the International Conference on Territory, Environment and Development (the Kari-Oca Conference), The Kari-Oca Conference was held immediately prior to UNCED by and for the world's indigenous peoples. More than 650 indigenous representatives participated in meetings and cultural events during the conference. They developed and adopted a 109-point Indigenous Peoples Earth Charter. Two statements bears specifically on the issues discussed in Chapter 4.

In support of sustainable consumption, indigenous people pointed out that they " have lived and kept this earth as it was on the first day." (Statement No. 68, Kari-Oca) Also, "If we are going to grow crops, these crops must feed the people. It is not appropriate that the lands be used to grow crops which do not benefit the local peoples. (Statement No. 70, Kari-Oca)


This chapter is weak in that it deals only peripherally with the connections between poverty, wealth, population pressures and the natural environment. The commitments made by governments are vague and fairly non-contentious. Exhortations to greater economic efficiency, the reduction of waste and the wiser utilization of renewable resources are worthwhile, but only tinker around the edges of the fundamental question of whether unlimited economic growth is sustainable in ecological terms. Recycling is a politically neutral objective, but changing the economic order will require significantly greater political will. Given the dramatic implications of understanding the connections between the doctrine of unlimited economic growth and environmental decline and social inequity, mundane recommendations to pursue further research are hardly adequate.

The history of the negotiations on this chapter explain the innocuous nature of its recommendations. The United States strongly opposed any reference to the notion of "over-consumption". Indeed, that term does not appear in any UNCED document. The Bush Administration reacted defensively to the notion that U.S. consumer and industrial behaviour held any responsibility for environmental degradation around the world. In the words of former U.S. President George Bush in the discussions leading up to Rio, "(t)he American lifestyle is not on trial." A discussion of over-consumption would have recognized more forcefully that both the South and the North have problems which need to be dealt with.

The only benefit of this chapter, and it is not inconsequential, is that the issue of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production has been put on the global agenda -- no matter how timidly. It will require significant efforts on the part of NGOs and supportive governments to flesh out the relationships that Agenda 21 has side-stepped and to confront directly the challenge of designing a sustainable economic model. That opportunity will face the international community at the 1994 session of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development when this chapter of Agenda 21 will be reviewed on their multi-year thematic program.


To the extent that Canada's commitment of 0.7% of GNP to Overseas Development Aid (ODA) is relevant to the issue of unsustainable consumption patterns, it should be noted that Prime Minister Kim Campbell has repudiated that goal. This represents the first time in over twenty years that the 0.7% figure has not been given at least lip service by the federal government. It represents a serious back-sliding since Rio on a matter of principle and substance.

In terms of reducing the quantity of resources Canadians consume, Canada has already committed itself at both the federal and provincial levels to a number of programs that are relevant to this chapter, if not to the larger issues of changing consumption patterns in a more meaningful fashion.

The federal and provincial environment ministers agreed in 1990 to a 50% target for the reduction of solid waste to be reached by the year 2000. This commitment was later enshrined in the federal Green Plan. At the time of the Green Plan, Canadians were per capita the world's largest generators of solid waste.

In 1987, the federal government launched an "Environmental Choice" program, modelled on the "Blue Angel" program in Germany, where environmentally acceptable consumer goods are identified with a special label. This program encourages Canadians to vote with their pocketbooks by choosing more environmentally sustainable products.

However much these programs address "reuse and recycle", they do not fundamentally touch the third "r" -- "reduce".

As well, Canada's commitments under the Climate Change Convention should be linked to changing patterns of consumption. Canada is second only to the U.S. in per capita energy use and waste generation. The Canadian government has committed itself to freeze greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels to the year 2000. Unfortunately, the recently released National Report on Carbon Limitation Programs confirms what many environmental groups have been saying since the commitment was made in 1990 -- in the absence of any domestic implementation program for energy efficiency and conservation Canada's emissions of greenhouse gasses have gone up. Moreover, the wasteful burning of fossil fuels appears to have risen faster than the rate of economic recovery. Canada persists in subsidizing fossil fuel mega-projects, but leaves renewable alternatives and efficiency programs unfunded. In 1992, for instance, the Sierra Club estimated, based on government reports that $10 billion in federal subsidies went to the oil and gas production sector.

When Canadians do behave in a way that reflects more appropriate levels of consumption, economic indicators report the absence of spending as a serious crisis of "consumer confidence". Politicians and economists encourage consumers to start spending again to promote economic recovery. The entire notion of debt in Canada has focused attention on publicly held debt. It ignores the billions of dollars of privately held indebtedness at high levels of interest to banks through the virtually universal reliance on credit cards. If North American consumers behaved as their grandparents did and spent only within their means, economic growth would be significantly impacted. The role of credit and debt, both individual and national, and its relationship to environmental degradation needs to be examined.


There is very little government-initiated activity in Canada in response to Chapter 4 of Agenda 21. In fact, government activity is directed in the opposite direction: it is an unquestioned assumption of government and the private sector that consumer activity far in excess of material needs is essential to Canada's economic health.

Government will have to respond in some fashion to this chapter in its National Report to the Commission on Sustainable Development since the issue of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption will be discussed at next year's session. The lead agency within government for coordination of Canada's chapter on this topic is Environment Canada.

Environment Canada

The Environmental Choice Program was created in 1988 in response to growing consumer demand for the credible assessment of and information on environmentally sensible products and services. The EcoLogo is the program's symbol of certification for products and services that meet (or exceed) an established set of environmental criteria. Criteria are developed by the Environmental Choice Board and then subjected to public review.

Canadian Code of Preferred Packaging Practices was released in November 1991. Manufacturers, marketers and distributors or packagers are encouraged to better understand and assess environmental implications of their package and bring about changes to package design and production to minimize waste.

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE)

The federal government has supported a social marketing project initiated and promoted by the NRTEE called SustainABILITY. This project will be pursued in partnership with ParticipACTION, to promote values and attitudes that will support the radical changes necessary to make sustainable development work.

Packaging Association of Canada (PAC)

The PAC holds a packaging competition every two years. Since 1992 it has had a special environmentally responsive category and the winner, selected by industry peers is given an Enviro-Wise award.

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)

The CLC is holding its 1994 conference on the theme of "Organizing for Environmental Change". Its environmental education program, initiated in 1991, focuses on workers as consumers and citizens and makes direct links between workers, production and consumption. It has established environmental criteria for both products and their production which exceed current standards.

Canadian NGOs at the national and grassroots level are exploring economic alternatives and more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. From large institutions such as the International Institute for Sustainable Development to grassroots efforts such as the Guideposts for a Sustainable Future, there is a lively conversation in Canada about the connection between our lifestyle and sustainability. Increasingly, the NGO community is questioning the connection between quality of life and quantity of consumption. An informal dialogue occurred around this subject through the "Commons Group", a multi-sectoral body convened under the joint auspices of the Chair of the Standing Committee on the Environment and the United Church of Canada. Occasional papers prepared for Commons Group discussions informed the dialogue.

Tangible efforts to reduce conspicuous consumption in Canada are already underway at the grassroots and community level:

The Fallsbrook Centre

The Fallsbrook Centre in rural New Brunswick has, in conjunction with a local ACCESS Centre, initiated a pilot training and skills development program for young people. The local economy is natural-resource driven. Through placements in local organizations, participants will examine the socio-economic situation alongside the environmental situation. By working in food production and processing, agriculture, forestry and waste management, participants will come to understand the need to decrease consumption of materials on all levels.

Worldwide Home Environmentalists' Network (WHEN)

WHEN, in West Vancouver, was started to educate people on how to bring about positive environmental change, such as recycling in the home, and toxin-free homes and gardens, through daily-life activities and political change.

Individual Canadians have also contributed. Statistics Canada is now tracking such indicators as taking reusable bags to the store, the use of public transit and recycling. Indications are that the core group of committed people who are prepared to reduce consumption is rising in Canada. There are significant variations based on regional differences, but trends indicate increasing lifestyle changes.


The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

The United Nations Centre for Transnational Corporations


Adbusters Quarterly, (Vancouver: Media Foundation, various).

Daly, Herman and John Cobb. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

Durning, A. How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Environmental Alert Series, W.W. Norton and Co., 1992).

. Poverty and the Environment: Reversing the Downward Spiral, Worldwatch Paper 92, (Washington, D.C.: 1989).

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Culture of Contentment, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992).

Government of Canada. Canada's Green Plan, (Ottawa: Environment Canada, 1990).

. Canada's Green Plan and the Earth Summit, (Ottawa: Environment Canada, 1992).

. Canada's National Report: United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Brazil, June 1992, (Ottawa: Environment Canada, 1991).

International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Agenda 21: Abstracts Reviews Commentaries, (Theodora Carroll-Foster, editor), (Ottawa: IDRC, 1993).

. Agenda 21: Green Paths to the Future, (D. Spurgeon, editor), (Ottawa: IDRC, 1993).

. A Guide to Agenda 21: Issues, Debates, and Canadian Initiatives, (Theodora Carroll-Foster, editor), (Ottawa: IDRC, 1993).

Keating, Michael. Agenda for Change: A Plain Language Version of Agenda 21 and the Other Rio Agreements, (Geneva: Centre for Our Common Future, 1993).

Timmerman, Peter, Abraham Rotstein and Peter Harries-Jones. Nature's Veto: UNCED Debate over the Earth, (Toronto: Science for Peace, University College, University of Toronto, 1992).

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Information Sources:

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), 2841 Riverside Drive, K1V 8X7, Ottawa, Ontario, tel: (613) 521-3400, fax: (613) 521-4655.

Fallsbrook Centre, R.R. 1, Hartland, New Brunswick, E0J 1N0, tel: (506) 375-8143, fax: (506) 375-4221.

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), 1 Nicholas Street, Suite 1500, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 7B7, tel: (613) 992-7189, fax: (613) 992-7385.

The United Church of Canada, 85 St. Clair Avenue East, Toronto, Ontario, M4T 1M8, tel: (416) 935-5931, fax: (416) 925-3394.

Worldwide Home Environmentalists' Network (WHEN), West Vancouver, British Columbia, tel/fax: (604) 926-5079

United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, Room S-3060, United Nations, New York, NY, 10017, USA, tel (212) 963-5959.

Cite as: Projet de société: Canada and Agenda 21.Winnipeg: IISD, 1995. Online. Internet.

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