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Sustainable production meets sustainable consumption

Sustainable consumption and production is often treated as a single concept, but the two agendas have, in practice, operated in virtual isolation – often talking about each other, but rarely interacting, and in the process critically weakening both. In 2015, SEI launched a new research initiative to explore why that is, and how to get the two working together.

Date published
6 March 2020

About the SEI Initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability

SEI initiatives explore key issues on sustainable development and serve as hubs for our research. The SEI Initiative on Producer to Consumer Sustainability explored the links and interactions within production-to-consumption systems – encompassing global flows of commodities and the impacts, dependencies and wider dynamics associated with production and consumption – in order to find new opportunities to enhance their sustainability.

Over the course of five years P2CS launched, supported and drew on a very broad range of projects looking at different aspects of production-to-consumption systems. Some of these have become influential forces in policy and practice, as well as academic research. P2CS also brought together novel groups of stakeholders to pool their experiences and deepen our understanding of how the sustainable consumption and sustainable production agendas relate.

Duration: 2015–2019
Region: Global

Material consumption is among the greatest drivers of environmental harm today. Vast quantities of materials, from minerals to fish to agricultural commodities such as palm oil and soy, enter supply chains. By the time they reach consumers, the social and environmental sustainability costs incurred in production, processing and transport can be virtually untraceable.

While both consumers and producers are aware that such costs exist, the sustainable consumption and sustainable production agendas have developed separately – looking at different geographies and with different stakeholders. This fact, and limited understanding of the detailed connections between production and consumption, have limited how effective either can be.

With its global reach and networks, SEI was ideally placed to investigate this disconnect and how to bridge the two agendas. In the process, the P2CS team made use of – and significantly expanded – the great diversity of competences available at SEI.

Trase: setting the agenda in supply chain transparency

One of the initiative’s main contributions was in developing a number of models and decision-support tools that map various aspects of producer to consumer systems. Perhaps the one with the highest profile was Trase.

Attempts to link sustainable consumption and sustainable production efforts have often foundered on the difficulty of tracing these supply chains. Downstream companies may commit to supply chain sustainability, but frequently have little idea of where those supply chains originate.

Trase, co-led by SEI and Global Canopy, is one of the most successful offshoots of P2CS. Making innovative use of available data sets, Trase maps the supply chains of exported agricultural commodities from importers back to the local areas of production, showing how supply chain actors are exposed to deforestation and other sustainability risks.

Launched at COP22, Trase has become a thought-leader in supply chain transparency and a go-to source of information for companies, governments, journalists and campaigners.

PRINCE: new directions for consumption-based accounting

Another major project under the P2CS umbrella was PRINCE, which aimed to push back the boundaries of consumption-based accounting of environmental impacts, or footprinting. PRINCE developed a set of new indicators of the global impacts of national consumption for Sweden. These indicators not only quantified the environmental pressures linked to different categories of goods and services consumed in Sweden, but also indicated where in the world the pressures occurred, and what types of consumption (government, household, investments) were responsible for what pressures.

SEI researchers were also involved in a range of PRINCE studies on further innovations in footprinting. These included developing world-first indicators for chemicals footprints and the impacts of capture fisheries on marine biodiversity, disaggregated by capture method and species. Adapting methods developed under Trase, another study showed how precise calculations of emissions from ocean-going cargo shipping could be assigned to different exported or imported commodities.

For more on PRINCE research, outputs and findings, visit the project website.

Household footprinting

P2CS was also home to Klimatkalkylatorn, an online tool developed by SEI in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which allows Swedish households to estimate their own annual greenhouse gas emissions. To date, more than 600 000 householders have used the tool, and it has helped to raise the profile of individual consumption footprints in public debate in Sweden. P2CS researchers used their experience to assist WWF-UK in updating its footprint calculator, integrating the most recent consumption-based statistics for the UK, helping it to become the most visited page on the WWF-UK website.

Local government and sustainable consumption

In 2018 SEI worked with Umeå municipality in northern Sweden to produce detailed insights into residents’ carbon footprints based on data from a local lifestyles survey. The municipality could then use the findings to communicate about consumption-climate links and to identify and highlight opportunities for more sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles.

A new project will build on this experience – as well as insights from the UNLOCK and other P2CS projects on consumption behaviour – to develop tools that any Swedish municipality can use to explore local carbon footprints based on residents’ lifestyles and consumption habits, as well as the policy levers are available to reduce them.

Sustainability governance

What does the disconnect between consumption and production mean for efforts to make supply chains more sustainable? Another strand of P2CS work looked critically at current sustainability governance in production-to-consumption systems. Much of the research centred on the supply chain bringing palm oil from Riau, Indonesia, to the European Union. Interviews with smallholder producers, traders, local officials, importers and EU governments and more, revealed very different understandings of sustainability and who can and should take responsibility for it.

Two dialogue meetings in Stockholm, organized by P2CS brought together experts from business, government, academia and civil society to discuss the prospects for supply chain sustainability and transparency, with a focus on Brazilian soy exports. The second of these dialogues asked participants to face up to some “hard truths” – questioning the tacit assumptions that underlie, and perhaps undermine, many common strategies such as consumer boycotts, sustainability certification and other voluntary private sector-led schemes.

A whole-economy perspective

As with any complex system, changes in one part of the global economy can have repercussions for other parts, from the macro level down to households and small businesses. Predicting what these will be is always difficult, and traditional economic models have a chequered track record.

Work started under P2CS to develop a new whole-economy model to explore how producer- and consumer-led sustainability strategies could affect macroeconomic stability. The first experiments with it looked at two approaches that have been put forward for reducing overall consumption – “downshifting” and “degrowth” – with interesting results.

Where do we go from here?

P2CS officially closed at the end of 2019. But it leaves behind a rich legacy, both within and beyond SEI. It has helped to change the conversation in areas like supply chain transparency. Its advances in environmental footprinting have influenced not just academic research but also how governments, companies and citizens understand the challenges. Most of all, P2CS’s achievements show that sustainable consumption and sustainable production no longer need be separate agendas.

Learn more

More information on many of the P2CS research project mentioned here can be found in a series of briefs.

Find P2CS publications, features, perspectives, project descriptions and more in our P2CS content archive.

P2CS was supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), along with individual project funding from a range of donors.

Visit the initiative page