|Building Synergy for Sustainable Consumption:
The Development of a North American Sustainable Consumption Alliance
Anne Berlin Blackman, J.D., M.A.*
Jack Luskin, Ph.D
Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell,
One University Avenue, Lowell, MA 01854 U.S.A.
North American countries have been slower than their overseas counterparts to address current consumption patterns as a serious environmental issue. In Europe, for example, several governments are actively engaged in campaigns to educate and influence citizens about the environmental consequences of their purchasing choices.i By contrast, the issue of “sustainable consumption” barely appears on the public agenda in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
To date, a formidable challenge to the promotion of sustainable consumption in North America has been the lack of a formal mechanism to facilitate collaboration and the exchange of information among the three countries. A network or forum has the potential to foster progress toward sustainable consumption in several ways, by enabling organizations to: learn about innovative approaches and successful pilot programs more efficiently, work together to reach larger audiences more effectively, reduce the likelihood of project redundancy or duplication, and amplify their power to drive the implementation of initiatives at the local and regional levels. Although Canada, the United States, and Mexico exhibit differences in their consumption patterns, all three economies are closely linked under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the environmental impacts associated with free trade do not respect political boundaries. An international network would provide civil society in all three countries an opportunity to formulate a shared vision of sustainable consumption for the continent as a whole.
Several events inspired the University of Massachusetts Lowell (“UML”)ii to seek to catalyze the development of a sustainable consumption network in North America. First, in 1999, UML published an overview of sustainable consumption initiatives in the United States. In the course of preparing that report, UML’s researchers were struck by the lack of coordination and communication among different organizations working toward a common goal. Second, in 2000, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched an initiative to organize and support sustainable consumption roundtables in different parts of the world to build regional infrastructures for addressing sustainable consumption.iii The Lowell Center began discussions with UNEP about catalyzing the formation in North America of a sustainable consumption network that could ultimately interact with UNEP-sponsored roundtables elsewhere. Third, in 2001, UML participated in an OECD workshop on Information and Consumer Decision-Making for Sustainable Consumption. The workshop provided ample evidence of the benefits that have resulted from formal and informal networking among sustainable consumption promoters in Europe.
In early 2001, the Lowell Center approached key promoters of sustainable consumption initiatives in North America to gauge their interest in developing a plan for working together more collaboratively. The Lowell Center sought to involve a broad spectrum of organizations from the public and non-profit sectors, ranging from groups that engage in grassroots organizing and household education to institutes that research the public policy or economic aspects of consumption. The individuals and organizations contacted by the Lowell Center affirmed the need for greater communication and collaboration and indicated their eagerness to begin addressing ways to work together better as a community. In response, the Lowell Center hosted a two-day meeting in October 2001 in which the following organizations participated: U.S. EPA, Environment Canada, SEMARNAT (Mexico's federal environmental agency), Global Action Plan, Consumers Union, Green Seal, Integrative Strategies Forum, Center for A New American Dream, University of Sonora (Mexico), RAJY (Youth Environmental Network of the Yucatan), the Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention, and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.iv
Participants in the October 2001 meeting determined that a future collaborative effort would have the potential to add value to their work in several ways. First, it could provide a mechanism for organizations to learn who is working on sustainable consumption issues and exactly what they are doing (information). Second, it could serve as a forum for organizations to exchange ideas and viewpoints (dialogue). Third, it could facilitate the development of a common and coordinated strategy around sustainable consumption, including communication and outreach. Fourth, it could serve as a source of language and information to help shape policymaking (advocacy).
The October meeting participants made significant progress toward the development of a strategic partnership. Outcomes from the meeting included:
Agreement to explore a four-part strategy as a preliminary approach to raising awareness in the short term and effecting broad-based change in the longer term. This strategy would involve information exchange and ad hoc collaboration (Level One), policy alignment where appropriate (Level Two), collaboration on larger projects (Level Three), and establishment of a common policy framework and adoption of shared language to address sustainable consumption issues (Level Four).
Decision to structure the strategic partnership as an “alliance” (rather than a network, roundtable, or congress) and selection of the name “North American Sustainable Consumption Alliance” for future collaborative efforts.
Commitment to keep the Alliance under "common ownership" and to use existing structures or mechanisms where available and appropriate.
Identification of additional stakeholders.
Commitment to participate in electronic discussions and future meetings to refine the Alliance's objectives and strategies.
Participants engaged in a preliminary discussion of possible Alliance objectives and activities. Some of the objectives suggested include: defining national policy frameworks for sustainable consumption, standardizing sustainable consumption language, and identifying and obtaining key data and information to make a compelling case for specific initiatives. Some of the activities suggested include: developing and disseminating sustainable consumption case studies; organizing or sponsoring conferences and workshops; and involving youth, media, and celebrities in sustainable consumption initiatives.
To build on the momentum generated at the October 2001 meeting, Environment Canada and the Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention are hosting a second meeting of the North American Sustainable Consumption Alliance in Montreal in June 2002.v The objective of the meeting is to develop a coordinated strategy for promoting more sustainable consumption practices and patterns in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The meeting will also provide the opportunity for in-depth exploration of several key sustainable consumption issues.
Participants in the Montreal meeting must resolve several important issues regarding the scope and purpose of the Alliance. The first issue is the role of the business community in the Alliance. Some participants in the October 2001 meeting felt that business and industry should be invited because they represent sectors of society that are key to the achievement of sustainable consumption goals. Others expressed a preference for limiting eligibility to government agencies and NGO’s. A second issue is the relationship of the Alliance to organizations and networks focused on sustainable production. While cooperation between the sustainable production and consumption communities is crucial to achieving sustainability, there is little communication between the two camps. The third issue is the identification of concrete projects to undertake jointly in the short term.
Numerous challenges lie ahead for the Alliance as it evolves and matures. One of the Alliance’s more ambitious goals is to facilitate the shaping of a common North American vision of sustainable consumption. Any such vision will have to build upon (or at least be compatible with) each country’s own vision of sustainable consumption. Another Alliance goal is to facilitate consensus on policy recommendations as appropriate. By its very composition, the Alliance will necessarily include parties whose interests conflict in particular areas. These and other challenges will provide the Alliance with opportunities for leadership around key sustainable consumption issues.
i In 1998, the Dutch government launched a “Sustainable Do-It-Yourself” campaign to help consumers make environmentally friendly choices in their home improvement projects. Additional examples are provided in the “Report of the OECD Workshop on Information and Consumer Decision-Making for Sustainable Consumption (16-17 January 2001, OECD Headquarters
, Paris)”, Report no. ENV/EPOC/WPNEP(2001)16/FINAL (March 18, 2002).
ii “University of Massachusetts Lowell” refers to the staff of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and/or the Toxics Use Reduction Institute. For more information about the Lowell Center, please visit its website at www.uml.edu/centers/LCSP
. For more information about the Institute
, please visit its website at www.turi.org
iii In 2000-2001, UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics organized roundtables in Europe
, Asia/The Pacific, Africa, and Latin America. For more information, please visit its website at www.uneptie.org
iv The following organizations provided support for the meeting: the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Los Alamos National Laboratory
, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Environment Canada, SEMARNAT, and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.
v The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation is also providing support for this meeting.