The Agenda 21 action plan for sustainable development adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) concluded that «the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialised countries». The special responsibility of the developed world to take the lead in making the necessary changes was highlighted.
Many of today`s trends in consumption and production patterns continue to go in an unsustainable direction. Total energy consumption is growing, despite efficiency improvements in industry and end-use appliances. The generation of solid waste has yet to be decoupled from economic growth, while the projected increase in transportation poses one of the most serious consumption challenges for industrialised countries. Several research institutes have even suggested that OECD countries will need to cut their per capita pollution and resource intensities by a factor of 10 or more over the next half century if they are to reduce the burden they place on the global environment to sustainable levels.
Since UNCED, the urgency of the need for change has been reinforced, and some promising signs of progress have emerged. OECD governments and business have recognised that environmental improvements can be made to consumption and production patterns in ways that raise the quality of life and enhance efficiency and competitiveness. There is a growing desire among individual and corporate consumers to choose environmentally superior goods and services. Governments are starting to develop and implement a new generation of policy tools, including economic instruments, to steer demand for goods and services in more sustainable directions. Researchers and non-governmental organisations have promoted a range of new approaches, including the notions of ecological footprints and environmental space, while community-based organisations have supported action by household to move toward sustainable lifestyles. Nevertheless, these efforts are relatively new and have often been unconnected and piecemeal. A more focused and concerted international effort is now required.
Work is now underway as part of the UNCED follow-up process to define a policy agenda on sustainable production and consumption. For example, the January 1994 Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption identified some of the critical themes for further action, including:
At its May 1994 session, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development pointed to the need to target policy measures at changing the behaviour of individual households, business, governments, and international organizations. Its also mandated further work to develop elements of an international work programme on sustainable production and consumption.