Sustainable consumption: An untapped opportunity in Asia

Businesses need to be more vocal in urging their customers to adopt sustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles, says CSR Asia programme manager Clelia Daniel. Here’s how they can start doing so.

shopping mall asia
A shopping mall in Singapore. UNEP and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies estimate that Asia will account for 48 per cent of global consumption by 2030, with consumer spending likely to reach US$32 trillion. Image: CDL

The concept of sustainable consumption incites us all to consume less and to consume better. Perhaps less obviously, it also encourages the world’s poorest people to increase their consumption. The implication therefore calls the private sector to keep consumption levels to within the carrying capacity of the world, but also to make space for those currently in poverty who will inevitably consume more once out of poverty.

While companies meticulously and in great detail plan how to reduce their own social and environmental footprint, they tend to put much less emphasis on the impact of their products once in the hands of the consumers.

This is understandable as the behavior of their customers it is not under companies’ direct control. However, consumption might have the same or an even greater impact on the environment and society than expected.

Many global brands have rethought their products in a way that promotes sustainable lifestyles, i.e. PatagoniaInterfaceNikeHeineken among many others. Since sustainable consumption is at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal 12Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, we can expect to hear more about it from Asian companies as well.

In the age of transparency, it is important for companies to send a clear message about their purpose, which can no longer be just selling more products and services with negative environmental and social impacts. By 2030, the Asia-Pacific region will account for 48 per cent of global consumption, urging the region to start thinking seriously about its consumption patterns. 

According to the Environmental Programme of the United Nations (UNEP) and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), consumer spending is estimated to reach US$32 trillion by 2030 and ‘informing consumers in Asia about the implications of their consumption decisions and helping provide them with sustainable options will help the region maintain quality growth without undermining future development.’

Businesses surely have the potential to contribute and shape sustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles both in their role as suppliers and as customers, and should be more vocal about it. A recent example is the toys giant Lego, who exercised its power as a consumer by announcing they will no longer advertise in a newspaper that was condemned by a social media campaign for their anti-immigrant stances.

In their role as suppliers, companies can rethink their products and services and develop eco-efficient products and also support innovations that are suitable and affordable for low-income markets. For example, Fuji Xerox has carried out a resource recycling system (product recycling) to reduce its environmental impact throughout the lifecycle of their products.

Some companies have already started shifting from product sales to selling services and providing systems solutions, examples range from selling energy efficiency services to car sharing.  In the fashion industry, Levi’s have added tailor shops that can repair, resize and restyle denim in more than 80 Levi’s stores globally.

Businesses surely have the potential to contribute and shape sustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles both in their role as suppliers and as customers, and should be more vocal about it. 

This effort was taken by Levi’s as a step towards creating a circular economy infrastructure by 2020.  A local example is a Thai company called Momoko whose main business it to extend product life span and reduce waste. In addition to maintenance and repair, Momoko also creates new looks for old bags or shoes.

More importantly, the private sector can contribute to sustainable lifestyles also by creating markets for more sustainable products and to stimulate consumer demand for them. In Japan, to meet the diverse nutritional needs of Japan’s super-aging society, Ajinomoto increased its efforts to promote products for the elderly to ensure they have access a balanced diet. 

Unilever has focused on designing every day products in a way that allows people to easily live a sustainable lifestyle and minimize their impact on the environment. With their programme ‘Five Levers for Change’ Unilever offers a coherent approach to thinking about consumer behavior change.  

The financial sector also has a role to play, which is to mobilize and incentivize more social (and some private) capital to invest in sustainable companies and activities, while restricting investments in polluting sectors.

In China, the giant Alibaba has partnered up with UNEP to launch a carbon account platform that allows individual consumers to track their daily activities aiming to reduce emissions and promote environmental stewardship.

Advertising and marketing are perhaps the most powerful tools that can make sustainable consumption and lifestyles more attractive. This is best done via education and consumer engagement on how to reshape these everyday practices. See L’Oréal’s video.

The public sector has an equally important role to play, being the one to enforce powerful instruments such as taxes and subsidies that can guide more sustainable consumption, or making labelling of products mandatory to help more informed consumer choices, or funding research supporting the development of alternatives to damaging products and services.

UNEP is working with governments in Asia Pacific to strengthen policy and implementation towards SCP in the Asian region. 

  • Get informed: Read the facts and figures on Sustainable consumption and production here.
  • Get inspired: Find more best practices here.
  • Get better: A free online self-training course for business managers on the theme of resource productivity and decoupling can be found here.
  • Participate in the dialogue: Next year UNEP and its partners will host an industry-policy dialogue on “Asia’s Sustainable Lifestyles: businesses paving the way for Asia’s green consumers.” Private sector participants that want to shape this discussion can contact:


Clelia Daniel is a programme manager based at the Sasin Center for Sustainability Management (SCSM) in Bangkok, Thailand. This post is republished from CSR Asia’s blog.

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