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Sustainable Consumption and Production – a role for ESD  

Posted by Sanskriti on July 4, 2014

Note developed for a panel discussion on ‘Sustainable Consumption, Production and Trade and Education for Sustainable Development’, with special reference to a civil society perspective, as part of ‘Education is the Key –Towards a Global Post-2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, International Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, organized by GIZ, Engagement Global and the German Development Institute, on 16 June 2014, Bonn.

“Consumption and Production” covers a wide range of human activity, from extraction, industrial and agricultural production, waste management, recycling, and formal and informal economies. The parts of the jigsaw that will transform production-consumption systems include supportive policies, funds and financing mechanisms, technology, implementation infrastructure, trained people etc. Education can be a driver for the creation of each of these. ‘Education is a driver of drivers’, as suggested by Kartikeya Sarabhai, Director CEE. This brief note seeks to place a few ideas for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in relation to some aspects of production and consumption in a developing country context.

Increase consumption to meet basic needs

An important element in ESD is that there are multiple perspectives about issues. For example, the understanding about consumption in a developing country context is different from that in the developed world. The general or ‘Western’ view of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) is that consumption must be reduced and or qualitatively/sustainably modified. This view is certainly valid for the developed world, and also the more affluent segment in the developing world. However, the concept of Sustainable Consumption must also include the idea that basic needs are adequately met. This is not yet the case for a large proportion of the population in the developing world. For instance, one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. About a quarter of India’s population does not have assured access to electricity or clean energy. So, sustainable consumption is also about increasing consumption so that basic needs can be met.

Increasing consumption is an opportunity to promote Green Enterprises

The need to increase consumption presents an opportunity, since the manner in which the needs will be met could drive the creation of more sustainable modes of production and consumption. The buildings that might house slum dwellers in the future have not yet been built. The increased access to electricity or clean energy need not be from coal power plants but from grid-supported renewable energy systems.

There is a substantial opportunity here for green jobs and green enterprises; and by extension, for technical and vocational education and training (TVET) to respond to the need for trained people who will create and work in green enterprises. Hopefully, the new TVET will not only be about specific technologies but also about the social-ecological contexts in which new green enterprises would take shape. The rationale for green enterprises must be not only that they succeed as businesses, but also that they increase human well-being and are environmentally appropriate. This cannot come from the conventional methods of technical and vocational training, and ESD professionals have a role here to make it more holistic.

Strengthening the Informal sector is an opportunity

Apart from the creation of new systems for delivering goods and services, the developing world must also concern itself with the systems we currently have. It is particularly important to recognize the presence of a large informal economy as an opportunity.

For example, rag-pickers, itinerant scrap collectors, scrap shops etc form a large informal economy that provides waste management and material recovery services in most cities of developing countries. While informal sector workers play an important role in recycling, they do so in hazardous work conditions and this is a huge social cost. However, by making their work conditions safe, dignified and fair, providing adequate social and welfare measures, it may be possible to enhance their livelihoods while also enhancing the efficiency of materials recovery. An example is the case of SWaCH in Pune, India where the municipal authorities have supported the creation of a cooperative of waste collectors. Such efforts could lead to triple bottom line gains.

Similarly, mobility services are provided by cycle rickshaws in many developing country cities. Instituting welfare measures for cycle rickshaw pullers, improving the design of the rickshaw and creating some value added services like ‘dial a rickshaw’ can improve work conditions and livelihoods. Combined with measures like car-free areas, better public transport, the cycle rickshaw can provide low carbon mobility services. This has been done in the Eco-cabs initiative in the town of Fazilka, in Punjab, India. This could be another example of triple bottom line gains.

Developing country efforts for sustainable production/ consumption must thus look at how the informal sector that produces goods and services may be supported so that their lives and livelihoods become better, while also providing better, low carbon goods and services to society.

ESD has an important role!

ESD has an important role and the potential to inform, train and create new consumption and production patterns.

UNEP in its publication Global Outlook on SCP Policies: taking action together, describes how Civil Society Organizations have had a key role in shifting consumption and production patterns towards more sustainable alternatives. The role includes advocacy, policy dialogue, influencing extraction/ primary production and business practices, capacity-building etc. NGOs and civil society organizations are active at the grassroots, as well as international coalitions.

Initiatives like SWaCH Pune and Eco-cabs Fazilka could be developed, scaled up, adapted in many other cities through ESD work. This is not easy, since certain popular perceptions about the informal sector may need to change. The relationships that local governments have with individuals and organizations of the informal sector are sometimes adversarial since informal occupations are seen as ‘encroaching’ upon formal urban space. New laws such as the recently passed Street Vendors Act in India are the result of advocacy over the last few decades. To implement it across cities in India will require innovative techniques that bring different actors together in a conducive, inclusive and effective manner to design locale-specific solutions. It will require an exploration of values, of understanding different points of view, of imagining different possibilities. This is the stuff that ESD practitioners could be experimenting with to help design new ways of production and consumption.

People and organizations too have to have many competencies, as agents in transforming production-consumption systems. They need to be able to monitor their physical and social environment, identify issues and risks, access deeper knowledge on these, be able to advocate their own views and experiences, be able to engage other actors and learn their views and empathize with them, try and see the bigger picture, negotiate the trade-offs and arrive at new ways of doing things, and then do the whole thing again, and again!

Clearly, ESD professionals must support civil society actors in developing such competences, and help create or facilitate situations that support civil society in taking actions. Sustainable Consumption and Production is not only about technology and technology transfer. There is a lot of discussion on technology-transfer, but hardly any on ESD for SCP, or ESD for appropriate transfer and uptake of technology, or on how transformative, multi-stakeholder learning and action can happen to change consumption and production patterns and systems.

The SDG Goals and targets currently being formulated for ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production’ must go much beyond seeing the role of Education only as an exhortation directed at Consumers, appealing to a sort of moral sense to consume less or choosing better by paying attention to labels, though both these are important elements of the range of what consumers can do.

ESD in the SCP sector can help by engaging many different types of stakeholders in systemic changes. ESD agencies and methods that enable multi-stakeholder learning, joined up horizontally and vertically, could provide the ‘systemic-ness’ needed in the transformation of Production and Consumption.

These processes need to be deliberative and dialogic, inquiry based approaches, strengthening individual and collective agency. ESD professionals need to be able to develop appropriate learning methods and landscapes to help create systemic changes in consumption and production systems.                


International Energy Outlook, ud, Energy Access Database at accessed 15 June 2014

Sarabhai, K (January 2005), It is not just “development” that needs to be redefined… at, accessed 15 June 2015

SUMNet, ud, Eco-cabs in Fazilka, at, accessed 15 June 2014

SWaCH, ud, History of SWaCH at  accessed 15 June 2014

UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, 2 June 2014, Introduction and Proposed Goals and Targets on Sustainable Development for the Post2015 Development Agenda, at, accessed 10 June 2014 (version of 2 June 2014)

UNEP (2012), Global Outlook on SCP Policies: taking action together.

Unicef, ud, Picture in India: Nutrition at  accessed 15 June 2014


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