Consuming in Spirals: How do Consumption Patterns Change with Development?

7 December 2016

Today, consumption trends show that our preferences can move upwards towards sustainability, but it isn’t a straight path. As we develop, our consumption preferences change departing from our traditions and roots. But as we grow in our awareness and learning on the impacts of our consumption choices, we tend to return to our roots, building on these through research, innovation and technology. While we always imagined our journey to sustainable development as a linear set of steps. Instead, we can now begin to think of it as journey on a spiral staircase.

Fig. 1 Our journey towards Sustainable Consumption and Production – Steps on a spiral staircase (photo credit)

We are all consumers from the day we are born, with needs and wants requiring the use of natural resources to survive as a human species. By 2050 we are expected to be 9.7 billion people on this planet.  If our current patterns of consumption do not change, these will cause greater challenges on our planet’s fast-depleting natural resources. The latest reports from the WWF Living Planet Index show a 58% decline for global biodiversity between 1970 and 2012, and this decline will continue if no actions are taken to change how we consume and produce.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim for us to “Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns”. While, Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) may seem like an abstract term at first, it is simply referring to the age-old struggle between Man and Nature. With SCP we essentially aim to balance this relationship between the human species’ increasing consumption demands on nature and nature’s ability to produce natural resources to meet these demands. 

Fig. 2 Man vs. Nature – The Age old Relationship between the consumer and producer has gone awry

Twenty-five years ago “the consumer class” numbered 1 billion or one-fifth of the world population, earning more than $10/day.  But, as urbanization and the globalization of trade grew, the middle-income consumer more than doubled to 2.4 billion people worldwide.  Over 1 billion, or about half of this new middle-income consumer class is located in developing countries.  As a result, global demand for goods and services is increasing. UN Environment estimates that annual natural resource extraction would need to triple by 2050, exceeding the Earth’s capacity to satisfy this demand unless investments are made in improving the sustainability of our consumption and production habits.  Can we change how sustainably we consume quickly enough?

When we step back and assess how our consumption trends have changed over time as our societies have developed, there are glimmers of hope. We were often taught that our consumption and societies develop along a linear trend. But, looking more deeply at consumption and the key role it plays in our economies, we can begin to see that consumption preferences can move in stages forming a spiral. We can imagine it as a journey up a spiral staircase.

Why a spiral? At the bottom of the staircase (the beginning of the journey to development), we actually departed from a situation that was sustainable and in balance with our natural habitat. This indigenous way of life had its vulnerabilities including economic poverty, but environmental sustainability was higher. In the journey towards industrialization, countries have boosted economic growth at unprecedented rates. Over more than a century, these modernization trends have lifted millions of people out of poverty, but at a cost to the planet. Does modernization mean that we must completely divorce ourselves from nature, running up the stairs away from some of our eco-friendly roots? Today we are starting to understand that a return to build on the past is necessary. We need to move up our staircase relying on technological advancement, but we also need to build upon our indigenous knowledge and traditions for answers.

To better illustrate this, let’s take the example of changing patterns of mass transport and consumption of bicycles in Copenhagen, Denmark over more than a century. Copenhagen is a city rooted in a tradition of cycling. But, in the 1950s as incomes and technology developed, the car became the “modern” mode of transport for most of Copenhagen’s consumers and a status symbol, leaving the bicycle by the wayside. We can see this trend repeating itself globally in countries as they industrialize and aim for “modern” lifestyles.  If we look to Copenhagen today however, the Bicycle trend is back, bigger and better than ever – reducing the city’s carbon footprint.  This case shows us that we can build on our traditions, even if at first we may depart from them as we modernize.

Photo credits: Cycling Embassy DenmarkPeople for BikesCycling Embassy, Denmark.

As consumers in emerging markets reach middle-income status, many may leave traditional consumption habits behind - regarding these as backward, low-status or underdeveloped. In China, as consumption has grown rapidly in recent decades and the country has climbed the spiral staircase, the move away from traditional consumption habits has also increased – cars quickly outpaced the traditional bicycle. This year, to curb these trends, China issued Green Consumption Guidelines across ten ministries to reach sustainable consumption targets by 2020 (in less than 4 years!). China aims for growth of green transport among many other targets to integrate its traditions for the benefit of sustainable development.

This trend is actually global – global trade in environmental goods is estimated at $1 trillion annually and is expected to rise to US$ 1.9 trillion by 2020 . In 2015, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries adopted measures to incentivize consumption and trade of environmental goods, defining a list of over 50 products classed as environmentally-friendly.  The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) is aiming to build on APEC’s efforts this December with an Environmental Goods Agreement.  However, agreeing on what is and is not a sustainable product can be difficult to achieve globally and to date no global agreement exists on what constitutes a sustainable or “green” product.

The key research gaps are the need for global or regional agreements to:

i) Identify what constitutes sustainable goods and services;
ii) Harmonise how we measure national sustainable consumption;
iii) Share and monitor data on consumption trends of these sustainable goods and services.

This will enable countries to benchmark how consumption, a key component of GDP, is becoming more and more sustainable. Imagine if we could say that 50% of India’s or the United States’ consumption is sustainable? We would then know how quickly each country is moving up our spiral staircase towards sustainability.


The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.

Programme ExpertUnited Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA)