Who should be responsible for the environment? Big companies? Governments? Individuals? The German automobile manufacturer Volkswagen has recently been caught cheating in emissions tests by making its cars appear far less polluting than they really are, raising questions about where responsibility ultimately lies for making the economy sustainable.
Proponents argue that switching to a green, sustainable economy could create millions of new jobs and provide a much-needed boost to the struggling EU economy, but if it is more profitable to cheat the system than to follow the rules, can big companies really be trusted to be environmentally friendly? Is it up to governments to improve regulation? Or is it up to consumers to shop more responsibly, and not automatically go for the cheapest option?
Interested in the impact of a sustainable economy on job creation? We’ve put together the infographic below showing some of the facts and figures around sustainability and the European economy (click for a bigger version):
So, should consumers stop choosing the cheapest products, and instead shop for the most sustainable? We had an enthusiastic comment from Alfredo saying he supported people changing their lifestyles in order to transition to a more sustainable economic model. But what does all that environmental gobbledygook actually mean in human terms? What are some practical things that people can change about their lifestyles to ensure a more sustainable environment?
To get a response, we spoke to Ida Auken, a Danish MP, former Minister for the Environment of Denmark from 2011-14, and European Young Leader (2012). She suggested that our lifestyles need to become both more ‘sharing’ (so products are used by more than one person) and ‘circular’ (so the entire lifecycle of products is designed to be recyclable instead of disposable):
One place to start is by looking at the sharing economy. If you have the option to change to a carsharing scheme, for example, or make sure your company shares its office space with other companies. These are just two examples, and there are many other similar things that can both save you money and reduce your environmental footprint.
Then there is there is the circular economy. Clothing, for example, is an area that could benefit from a circular business model; for instance, there are opportunities for circulating baby clothes, and having it designed to be very high quality so that up to six or seven families can have the same clothes without just buying new ones all the time, but instead actually recycling them. So, these are the sort of things we could think about.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Jos Dings, director of Transport & Environment, a campaign organisation promoting EU and global transport policy based on the principles of sustainable development. What would he say to Alfredo?
Well, there’s a lot of little things you can do. You can make your house better, improve your insulation, bike more, buy a more fuel-efficient car, etc. But I think it’s fair to say that all these little nice things don’t add up to the massive effort required. For example, one weekend in New York burns the same amount of gasoline as you would use in your car for an entire year. So, flying is one of the things I would recommend you cut out of your life as a number one priority if you’re serious about sustainability.
Many people don’t like this kind of recommendation, but we have to strike a balance between encouraging people to do the right thing and telling them that tinkering around the edges is really nice, but there are some really big things that can screw up all your other efforts if you’re not careful. So, you also have to look at the really big things, and I would say that flying is number one among them.
We also had a comment from Jaume, who is fed up with being made to feel guilty about the way he lives. He says normal people are just struggling to get by, yet politicians and environmental activists are always moralising at them and telling them to change how they live. Shouldn’t it rather be up to governments and big companies to sort out the environment?
In fact, I would say that the circular economy is already primarily being promoted by large companies that are living up to their responsibilities, but also see a big opportunity in the circular economy. So, they are actually already the front runners. Companies like Ikea, Unilever, Renault, and others, they are the frontrunners and they are putting products on the market that have the same price, or even lower price, as ordinary products. And, actually, this makes it easy and cost-effective or inexpensive for the consumer. And I think that’s a good way to go about it, so you’re not always moralising at people, but actually giving them better alternatives.
What about Jos Dings? What would he say to Jaume’s comment about being fed up with feeling guilty?
I very, very much agree with Jaume… Ideally, we should collectively decide that we organise our society in such a way that you don’t worry about your individual actions. I would like to cut moralism out the equation completely, so that people are automatically making the right choices by design. So that everything you do is clean, and the things that are extremely dirty are either extremely expensive or not easily accessible. So that you don’t, as an individual, need to worry about the conundrum that ‘I can’t make a difference.’
My ideal world is a world in which that personal worry is gone because we collectively decide to solve this thing and there are no bad choices to be made. It’s good to raise awareness about environmental issues, but in the end the thing that matters is not whether people separate their waste or not, but whether they vote for parties that favour an economy-wide clean-up and essentially do the work for them.
Who should be responsible for sustainable growth? Big companies? Governments? Individuals? All of the above? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!