For too long, the way we produce and consume products has unintentionally harmed people and the planet. The processes through which commodities such as tea leaves are plucked by farmers in India and transformed into the steaming mug of tea served in your local Starbucks can often contribute to social and environmental problems like climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality.
As consumers, we have the power to influence the way products are made, transformed, transported, and sold. By choosing sustainably grown products, we can motivate producers, manufacturers, and retailers to adopt and invest in more sustainable practices. Likewise, these actors must play a role—alongside bodies that set voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs)—in educating consumers and making sure we have the information we need to make informed choices.
Sustainable consumption trends in Asia and beyond
Global consumption of sustainably produced products such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, and tea is increasing, according to the findings from the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s (IISD) commodity series reports and IISD’s contribution to the International Trade Centre’s State of Sustainable Markets reports. This encouraging trend is driven by factors such as changing consumer preferences, reputational risk management and marketing opportunities for businesses, as well as an increase in supportive regulatory frameworks and export promotion measures from governments.
However, this growth in demand comes mainly from Europe and North America. And for some commodities like coffee and tea, supply of VSS-compliant products still outpaces demand. Emerging and developing countries, particularly in Asia, represent the largest consumer base for many of these commodities but demand for sustainable products there remains low. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the higher price of products that comply with VSSs to a lack of awareness amongst buyers, consumers, and government officials on the sustainability issues affecting commodity production.
Promising initiatives aimed at boosting sustainable consumption in Asia
In September, IISD and Evidensia organized a webinar that brought together various actors—from buyers and producers to VSS representatives—to discuss initiatives aimed at increasing sustainable consumption in Asia.
Many of these projects focus on improving the transparency and accountability of sourcing practices within supply chains and enhancing the credibility of product sustainability claims. For example, One Planet Network’s Consumer Information Programme provides reliable sustainability information on goods and services to help consumers make more informed choices. The World Wildlife Fund has done research on traceability in palm oil supply chains to help companies and consumers better understand where their products come from and how they affect forests, as well as promote accountability in the sector. And VSSs like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) provide labels that reassure consumers that their products have met measurable social and ecological criteria throughout their lifecycle.
We also heard examples of how organizations are seeking to raise consumers’ awareness about the implications of their buying habits. For example, the Eco-fair project runs campaigns and offers online training to promote sustainable consumer choices in Vietnam. Similarly, the Trustea Sustainable Tea Foundation is developing a consumer outreach campaign on sustainability. And the Sustainable Coffee Platform of Indonesia (SCOPI) aims to promote sustainable coffee production and consumption through partnership and collaboration.
Where do we go from here?
While these initiatives are encouraging, the journey has only just begun. To further boost sustainable consumption in Asia, we need to work together across all sectors.
As consumers, we can demonstrate our willingness to pay that little bit extra for sustainable products and services. We can also demand more ambitious sustainable sourcing commitments and transparency from buyers, traders, and retailers.
Standard-setting bodies and other supply chain actors can improve product traceability and offer credible and transparent information to consumers on product sustainability, so they can make better choices in the market. They can also help educate consumers on the true social and environmental costs of commodity production and the impacts our purchases can have on people and our planet.
Finally, governments can consider the role of regulatory frameworks and policies in enforcing more sustainable practices across supply chains. They can also help make sustainable products more affordable by offering monetary incentives to consumers or taxing products that don’t comply with sustainability requirements.
Globally, we produce more sustainable products such as coffee and tea than we consume. Given the size of its consumer base, Asia must play a big part in closing the demand gap and achieving broader systemic change in sustainable consumption patterns worldwide.
The author would like to thank Jennah Landgraf for her contributions to this blog and Cristina Larrea and David Perri for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this blog.