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):

auken-speaksOne 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?

dingsWell, 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?

auken-speaksIn 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?

dingsI 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!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Tim Wang
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

43 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Dwayne Kohler

    Corporatons first Rule ist to make Money/Profit. In order to make profit some managers are prepared to brake the rules, ever cheated in a test?, its only human to try to get an advantage, but this is a whole other level of cheating, this aint a math test, this is a environmental crime, its also fraud, and it most likely damaged peoples health, VW ist a major Car Manufacturer and a huge Corporation, they knew better but yet they did this, and this is a culture in the car industry, what about the mileage numbers, we all have known for years that these numbers cant be right, and if they lie about environmental things what about safety, how do we know that these cars are as safe as they could be, maybe they only do what the law requires, because to go the extra mile would bite into their profits, this is the problem with private industry, they care mostly about money.Authorities all over the world knew about these frauds for years, yet they did nothing, only after the USA decided to take action did others do something about it, VW must face serious fines world wide, even if the german government has to bail them out, VW must be made to pay a heavy price for their crimes.

  2. avatar

    All of the above! Everyone should be responsible! The Earth is OUR home! Not theirs, or the government’s! It is their home and our home!
    And because one company shot itself (and all of us) in the foot, it does not mean all companies are mean.

  3. avatar

    Just look at the most trusted “honest” and “sincere” german car makers in Europe… and Dieselgate is just irrelevant compared with the “secrets” from pharmaceutical industry… Stay tuned !

  4. avatar
    Rui Marcos

    They can and they should be the first ones. It’s only possible when they have great humans as leaders.

  5. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    No- caught in “flagrante delicto” & exposed- as this incident proves it!

    Such serious breach in trust must not be used to divert or condone cheating due to fears of possible job losses, while pretending to follow an all accepted sustainable growth path- incorporating “greener” technology.

    How should VW be penalized? One is & must be outraged at such dishonesty, gross recklessness & lack of responsibility found in the highest corridors of power! It is simple greed driven by competition masked behind false marketing claims of technological advancement & circumventing legal compliance’s. Outrageous!

    The “market” is financially punishing all VW shareholders. Probably not fair for ordinary & innocent investors & pensioners. All responsible persons involved should face criminal prosecution & a class action against them, litigation & be sequestrated if found guilty- to send a serious message to all overpaid Globules, lobbyists & their accommodating politicians. No indemnity or buddy- buddy protectionism!

    However, my honest choice when buying a new car- would not hinge on the lowest emission figures but the lowest overall consumption, low, best & trusted available maintenance service centers, spares availability, the best affordable price range of the most suitable model for my requirements. All vehicles nowadays are very good & reliable- green technology just a bonus & highly appreciated- if true!

    Most countries have general speed limits. “Performance” is an overvalued (ego) concept- except in “unrestricted” Germany, the ‘younger’ or all would be F1 drivers!

  6. avatar
    Rui Duarte

    Companies are not supposed to be trusted: they’re supposed to make money.

  7. avatar

    Can small companies be trusted to be environmentally friendly? I think the answer is the same for both questions.. it depends…

  8. avatar
    Larry Connell

    Companies are driven by increasing shareholder value and ceo millions
    They don’t care about the little people and they see the environment as something to exploit to those ends
    The current VAG swindle is an example of corporate greed on a universal scale and graphically shows a company that set out an agenda from the top down to con consumers.
    It shows the weakness of the current testing procedures
    Cars should be pulled from showroom and real tested on road conditions to give real figures not the rolling road laboratory white coat scenario so loved by the industry.

  9. avatar
    Anargyros Botsis

    Stop all Volkswagen Sales in Europe now for 1 year… ! And after that they will make sure that they can be Trusted. Until then, no they can not be Trusted and they are a Shame for the European Automobile Industry.

  10. avatar
    catherine benning

    What a silly question. If they could be trusted this situation with the trickery of Volkswagon would not have happened, would it? Corporatiosn have been exploiting the man in the street, with the backing of their twisted governments for decades and will continue to do so unless they are made to pay from their own pockets and pay hugely. The corporations are run by people not robots take their personal assets away the way you do drug trafickers and watch it stop. And whilst you are at it take the personal assets of the lobbyists and politicians who went along with their fraud.

  11. avatar
    Toni Muñiz

    Trust and big business?Thats why you have governement regulations that must be enforced. I know of no big business that would not cut corners to profit.

  12. avatar
    Yannick Cornet

    It is in a company dna to externalise costs wherever possible. They will by default go as far as the law allows, sometimes creatively if they think they can get away with it. Unless we question capitalism, we must accept that. Thus the burden really falls on governments to create a level playing field and insure environmental ‘externalities’ are truly avoided, mitigated or adequately compensated for. The VW case is a case of inadequate government, the whole motor and fossil fuel and chemical industries are getting a free lunch and its high time to tighten it all up.

  13. avatar
    Andreas Krüpe

    If nobody imposed ludicrous regulations, there would be no need to ask whether anybody can trust a company as no company would need to resort to anything that some may call a dirty trick in the first place.

  14. avatar

    Who should be responsible for sustainable growth?

    Individuals working for big companies regulated by governments. The key word is REGULATED.

  15. avatar
    Dalibor Medvedović

    Yes. There is no excuse for mistakes. The point of wiev: its not important to do just good thing, but thrue information too.

  16. avatar
    Nick the Greek

    It depends on ethics…big corporations espousing to be ‘ethical companies’ adhering to ethical principles, and being guided by them, stand better chance of being trusted by the general public wherever they may reside in the world.

    Corporate Germany led us to believe that German companies were beyond reproach, beyond ‘moral-hazard’ and beyond ‘corruption’…that they catered for the well-being and general-good of their world-wide customers.

    That self-righteous ‘holier than thou’ attitude did much harm to Germany…it shall take ages, very very long time, to recover, and to earn that trust once bestowed on them from the (global) general public.

  17. avatar
    Ahmad Danesh

    The environment is dying, the future is in danger and yet there are no serious actions against it. Some people are trying to save the environment and being environment friendly through cycling more or buying a more fuel-efficient car etc. Whilst the majority of the world’s population are uncaring or uneducated about it. That’s why the amount of carbon dioxide production which is avoided by the eco-friendly people is nothing compared to the rest of the people and companies. So who should take the responsibility for a better environment? For a better and safer world to live in?

    The dream solution would be that everyone in the world should take the responsibility towards the environment. We all are responsible in our various ways. But sadly the most of the people are not being serious about it. That’s why the government should start taking serious moves towards a better and safer environment. Because the government has the resources and power to do different kinds of eco-friendly projects. For example they can encourage community involvement to make the world a better place to live in. They can also make sustainable development plans or formulas and limit the biggest carbon dioxide production in the world which is done by the big companies. Besides we save lots of time and avoid much carbon dioxide if the government’s take serious actions towards the environment as soon as possible, than if we people individually do it. Having said that, it does not mean that people can do whatever they want. The future is in our own hands so everybody should make an effort to protect the environment.

    But since there are myths about big companies bribing governments to stay away from environment responsibilities. We should start educating each other about global warming and being eco-friendly. Until it gets so big and important that people and governments can’t ignore it anymore. Because at end of the day we all are responsible for the environment and for getting our government to hold their task for environmental regulations and procedures etc. Because I believe that we can change the world, in fact i believe that we do change the world every single day, I believe that one of our collectively choices moves the network, it changes value, it changes culture, our habits changes society, so absolutely i believe that we have the power.

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