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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Sustainable Consumption: a vital ESD theme

Matthew Bentley
Dr. Matthew Bentley is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Humankind consumed more natural resources in the second half of the 20th century than in all of previous human history. For instance, the consumption of water, grain, beef and mutton tripled while the consumption of paper increased six-fold (Brown et al., 1999). While this trend is clearly unsustainable, paradoxically, consumption is crucial to human survival. Indeed, as fewer and fewer of us are able to grow our own food, build our own houses, etc., consumption is well-nigh a necessity of contemporary human life. Consuming resources and products made from them has led to many improvements in living standards - private motor cars, television sets, overseas holidays, new designer fashions, restaurant meals, etc. - at least for those who can afford to consume. However, these do not necessarily lead to a sustainable way of life.

The tension between these positive and negative effects of consumption is a major influence on the transition to a sustainable future.

Most people in developed countries such as Australia are among the world's largest consumers of natural resources and their production and consumption patterns have major environmental, social and economic impacts around the world. As indicated in the 1998 Human Development Report (UNDP 1998), for example, the 20 per cent of the world's population living in OECD countries:

  • earn 85 per cent of the world's annual income;
  • consume 75 per cent of global energy and over 80 per cent of other resources annually; and
  • generate 75 per cent of annual global pollution.
The damage brought on by consumption is huge. Today, nearly forty percent of the world's agricultural land is seriously degraded (Wood, 2000). This is just one environmental concern, but a major one, as it undermines our capacity to produce food. Others include soil salinity, deforestation, pollution and global warming. All are results of our consumption behaviour. Of course, consumption not only impacts the environment but also is directly related to labour rights in developing countries, animal rights, poverty and economic and social inequality. Too much consumption also affects health. Over fifty percent of people in countries such as Australia and the U.S. are overweight, with increasing numbers classified as obese. Where, how, and by whom our consumer goods are produced are becoming more important questions than ever. Indeed, many people are now beginning to question dominant modes of production and ask whether animals were used to test the products they might purchase; or whether the clothes they might buy were made by child labourers in Asia.

Sustainable consumption first secured international notoriety at the time of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Sustainable consumption was included alongside more well-known social issues in the Agenda 21 statement on sustainable development (Chapter 4). Since then, the United Nations has developed a set of policy guidelines on sustainable consumption and UNESCO has adopted sustainable consumption as a key theme for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Today there exists a heightened understanding by policymakers and educators worldwide that sustainable consumption can benefit people in both rich and poor countries. Definitions of sustainable consumption often contain five emphases:

  • satisfying basic human needs (not the desire for 'wants' and luxuries);
  • privileging quality of life concerns over material standards of living;
  • minimising resource use, waste and pollution;
  • taking a life-cycle perspective in consumer decision-making; and
  • acting with concern for future generations. (Fien, 2000).
Although in some cases consuming less might well be necessary, it is rather a case where 'quality' is more important than 'quantity'. In fact, a focus on the quality - rather than just quantity - of consumption provides a framework for achieving improved quality of life. As the 1998 Human Development Report noted: 'Consumption can contribute much to human development but to deliver its potential it must be shared, strengthening, socially responsible and sustainable.'

Changing unsustainable aspects of consumer demand requires action at many levels. Actions by governments are needed. These include providing an appropriate policy framework of supporting social and economic instruments based upon eco-labelling schemes, tax and pricing incentives, appropriate energy and water supply infrastructure, policing infringements of environmental codes, and modelling sustainable consumption priorities in their own purchasing departments. Certainly, action is also needed to encourage a reconsideration of the consumer choices of individuals and households, and the values and attitudes that lie behind them. These include common assumptions about personal identity, social well-being and quality of life. It also requires a reconsideration by individuals, families and communities of what it means to live a happy and abundant life within the limits of the Earth's natural resources, and according to the principles of intra- and inter-generational equity.

Education is a proven method for engineering social change. When used in combination with other techniques it can also help develop people's capacities to critically reflect on their consumption and make the necessary adjustments toward sustainable lifestyles. A current Griffith University and International Young Professionals Foundation (IYPF) project, "Sustainable Consumption - Young Australians as Agents of Change", is piloting a sustainable consumption capacity building program that incorporates a range of existing sustainable consumption education tools and strategies. The final project report will include a comprehensive literature review on sustainable consumption and related youth education initiatives, findings from a number of youth consultations (survey and focus groups), a selection of good practice case studies and implications for policymaking. The project is being funded by the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme, and the report will be published in late 2004.

Sustainable consumption remains one of the most challenging of all the "Agenda 21" sustainable development goals. That is why harnessing the support of young people, the world's largest demographic and most vibrant agents of change, is so critically important. In an adeptly named 2000 project - Is the Future Yours? - UNESCO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) surveyed the consumption patterns and lifestyles of over 10,000 young people in 24 countries, including youth in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The researchers found that young people had an inherent interest in sustainable consumption principles, while many were even acutely aware of the impact that their consumer waste had on the environment. In spite of this, young people were found to clearly lack the broad-based education and training necessary to make their lifestyles more in tune with sustainability.

Many young Australians, like their peers overseas, appreciate the urgency of developing programs that empower them to act on sustainable consumption issues, including water and energy efficiency, recycling and sustainable technologies. UNESCO acknowledged this deficiency in sustainability education in 2002, when in conjunction with UNEP it launched the YouthXchange training guide and interactive web-site on responsible consumption. Although YouthXchange is yet to be replicated in Australia, many policies and programs operate to mitigate unsustainable consumption. An integrated high school curriculum on Changing Consumption Patterns (2002), developed for use by U.S. high schools, is a prime example of the recent progress in education for sustainable consumption. However, there is considerable need for expanding education for sustainable consumption programs in Australia, as well as incorporating sustainable consumption topics into existing ESD curricula.


BROWN, L.R. et al. (1999) State of the World 1999. Norton, New York.

FIEN, J. (2000). 'Learning and Teaching for Sustainable Consumption', Unpublished paper. Brisbane: Griffith University.

UNDP (1998) Human Development Report, 1998, UNDP, New York.

WOOD, S. et al. (2000) Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE): Agroecosystems, International Food Policy Research Institute and World Resources Institute, Washington D.C.


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