Innovative pathways to achieve
sustainable consumption and production
Primary target: government
Secondary: business (boxes?)
Inspire countries to be coherent – global approach, connecting – sustainable policies have higher impact
Highlights on existing product policies and design practices of products and services
- The present findings and conclusions build on the research conducted between March and October 2020 for the purpose of responding to the mandate of the Resolution and on more than 900 activities which were reported in 2019 across the One Planet network under the SDG indicator 12.1.1.
- Reporting across the One Planet network identified evident progress on the development of policies, knowledge resources and technical tools, whereas the application and implementation of these to foster tangible changes in practices and measurable impacts remains limited.
The majority of the policies were adopted between 2012 and 2019, with 2016 and 2019 being the peak adoption years
- Overarching policy frameworks, such as national sustainable development strategies, represent only 14 per cent of all policies reported under the indicator 12.1.1. The majority of policy interventions are either sectoral or stand-alone plans for sustainable consumption and production, hindering the potential to overcome sectoral silos and align existing policies and regulations. The development of integrated product policy frameworks, using a lifecycle perspective, remain rare. Product policies are often hosted under broader development policy umbrellas such as sustainable development, sustainable consumption and production or circular economy strategies or actions plans, as they can offer the right environment to implement coordinated policy packages, and support the systemic change that is needed to transform economies and societies.
- The monitoring of the implementation of concrete product policy instruments and the assessments of their impact remains challenging across regions. It is confirmed by data trends on SDG indicator 12.1.1 which show that countries experience difficulties in quantifying the impacts of their current SCP policies; only 26 per cent of the total reported policies had quantifiable targets or measured impacts.
- While some 70 per cent of the reported policies under the indicator 12.1.1 are considered relevant to other Goals, (Goal 9 – industry, innovation and infrastructure, Goal 8 – decent work and economic growth), only 10 per cent of reported policies are led by a ministry of economic development, financing, planning or trade and industry or by a high-level political body. This signals a siloed approach, mostly driven within environmental portfolios. One factor that characterises the frontrunners in the adoption of coherent product policy packages is the inter-ministerial cooperation. The shift towards sustainable production and consumption patterns requires a closer collaboration.
- At global level, end of life treatment of products, solid waste reduction and recycling are the thematic areas which concentrate most of policy attention. Very few policies cover upstream solutions such as product design and consumer patterns.
- In most cases, countries leverage a combination of different instruments, including incentives, voluntary schemes (e.g. voluntary cleaner production policies), standards and legal restrictions (e.g. single-use plastic products restriction regulations). In countries where policy formulation is decentralized to the sub-national levels, the uptake of sustainable practices frequently relies on voluntary steps taken outside the legislative framework by industries, mostly large companies, which have enough influence to drive markets and consumer choices. The key challenge remains to embark all relevant stakeholders in a transformation of consumption and production patterns beyond the voluntary instruments.
- Innovative design practices by businesses focus predominantly on improving resource efficiency and waste reduction and recovery. In line with current incentives, businesses acknowledge the potential economic savings of resource efficient processes and technologies and prioritize mitigating environmental impacts at the production stage. A systematic uptake of upstream design solutions, such as eco-design or circular sourcing, is far from being a common practice at global level.
- Only few initiatives concentrate on designing out harmful substances to facilitate product disassembly for re-use, upgrade, extended lifetime or recycling. Front runners also started to reduce the mix of materials (e.g. plastics and fibres) and innovations in materials at the design stage. Designing for modularity for easy repair, upgrade and disassembly is another emerging trend, particularly in the electronics industry.
- A major impediment to the adoption of design practices remains: products and services incorporating sustainability concerns in their design are often more expensive. Currently they do not compete with conventional alternatives, as most consumers continue to prioritise prices when making purchase decisions. Businesses offering repaired or refurbished products also struggle to compete on price with newly manufactured products, as the labour costs are making their potential margins too slim.
- The lack of transparency in globalised supply chains regarding the origin and content of materials in products is also a barrier, not only for an informed consumer choice, but also for manufacturers to source recyclable components or containing recycled content.
- While some businesses have managed to tap into available funding such as crowdfunding campaigns or innovation programmes sponsored by governmental entities, most of the private sector – in particular SMEs and start-ups – lack access to the capital required for the initial investment to implement, replicate and scale up design innovations.
- Businesses and supporting networks (including RECPnet) have raised the lack of technical capacity in eco-design, and access to the latest technologies for SMEs in particular. This knowledge gap contributes to the limited interest of businesses to implement innovative design products on a pro-active/voluntary manner.
- Some examples illustrate how businesses successfully partnered with governments, academia, and international organizations. However, the benefits of a cooperation among stakeholders (e.g. public-private, large enterprises/SMEs, technical experts, financial institutions) is often overlooked.
Section II – Recommendations and Suggested Actions
- High-level political leadership is essential to ensure product policy frameworks become a priority in the national political agenda and sufficient resources are allocated accordingly. An inclusive consultation process is also required during the formulation, implementation and monitoring of product policy frameworks, to foster inter-ministerial cooperation, synergies among policies, public-private-partnerships, including with financial and research institutions, and broader acceptability.
- The uptake of product policy packages also requires a robust governance process, including a clear transition plan, measurable implementation indicators, and agile decision processes. A balance between regulatory, voluntary, and information-based policy instruments can support a sustainable and profound transformation. The framework should be regularly reviewed to adjust the policy response to the progress made, international regulations and changes in technology. Recognising the importance and role of the informal sector in advancing product policy efforts is also critical.
- Most of the current policy efforts focus on providing downstream regulations. Greater coherence between waste policies, cleaner production policies and lifecycle-based approaches allows a transition toward a development model that not only looks at minimizing waste, but also incorporates upstream and middle-stream solutions to create more impact. Considering the global nature of supply chains, product policies need to promote a value chain or sectoral approach. Chemical and waste-related policies can positively impact product design and reduce pollution at all stages of the value chain, if developed and implemented in a coordinated manner.
- Adopting a value chain approach in product and service design is critical to avoid siloed interventions. Creating a pre-competitive space, where the industry, academia and consumers engage can help overcome technological barriers, and create cross-sectoral innovative synergies.
- The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the interconnectedness of countries and the fragility of global value chains. Many global leaders have announced stimulus packages. Countries have a unique opportunity to incentivize the shift towards more sustainable consumption and production through coherent product policies, where innovative design of products and services is fostered, and sustainable consumption behaviours are encouraged.
- Replicating good practices on product policies which build on the national adoption of multilateral environmental agreements, such as the Minamata Convention, and which led to national legislation on mercury in products, can further support and amplify coordination and alignment at national level.
- Leveraging the public and private purchasing power through buying more sustainable goods and services can help create a market and drive down the cost of sustainable alternatives. Reliable and clear information on products, materials and companies themselves and an enhanced transparency in supply chains can strengthen competitiveness of sustainable products and services, as consumers are empowered to make informed choices.
- As upfront investment costs are often dissuasive to businesses, notably for SMEs, economic and fiscal incentives are instrumental to encourage businesses to adopt innovative design practices. Bias against investments in resource productivity remain, such as labour taxes which are typically higher than the tax burden on resources and energy. As labour and resources are often alternative inputs into economic growth, this favours resource consumption rather than increased employment.
- Product policies, such as eco-design and recyclability standards, can be impeded when products are involved in global value chains and exposed to different regulations and standards. This raises the need to include a focus on the trade dimension of product policies.
- Transforming societies through raising a ‘sustainability awareness’ and emphasizing the critical role of our consumption decisions is fundamental to profoundly change our consumption and production patterns. As consumer sustainability awareness increases, build a relationship of trust with consumers, which becomes an enabler for accessing finance (e.g. through crowdfunding). Direct and trustful relationships with customers can also facilitate the uptake of innovative business models, such as product-service systems, sharing platforms etc.
- Internal engagement within the company, combined with a strong leadership of management, and capacity building of staff towards the elaboration of new design solutions have proven instrumental to create a motivating environment and mitigate the resistance to change of staff. Purpose led innovation rather than solely profit led can ultimately help achieve positive economic outcomes.
- Digital technologies offer promising opportunities to improve resource efficiency in products: for example, 3D printing enables production on demand and replacement of products’ components and spare parts; tagging solutions enhance traceability of products, materials and resources, hence improving transparency throughout supply chains.
Recommendations and suggested actions
- Governments and businesses need comprehensive and tailored information to help identify priorities, implement relevant product policies and monitor impacts that is currently unavailable. In addition, there are different levels of understanding of what a coherent product policy framework entails and its potential benefits. The United Nations Environment Assembly may wish to encourage UNEP and the international community to identify mechanisms to address these gaps and focus efforts on addressing the barriers hindering at global level the uptake of coherent product policies and sustainable design practices. The creation of an exchange space could allow to identify and fill in knowledge and governance gaps, share and disseminate lessons learned, successful policies and practices, and also enhance dialogue and cooperation at global, and regional levels. Engaging all relevant stakeholders will facilitate coordinated efforts and greater impact in developing and adopting relevant policies and practices.
- The United Nations Environment Assembly may wish to encourage and formalize discussions around strengthening the science-policy-society interface with a robust methodology to assess the potential benefits on environmental protection and other sustainability dimensions of product policies. This will also include developing capacity of policy makers and businesses, in particular SMEs, through the dissemination of methodologies for the lifecycle assessment of products, and strengthened access to open life-cycle data, including regional and country-specific data.
- Building on the work presented in the report of UNEP/EA.4/Res. 4, Member States may wish to encourage UNEP and others to continue providing technical support to policy makers on the formulation of conducive product policies. In addition, capacity-building initiatives on eco-design, the dissemination of science-based evidence on the benefits of circular design practices, and piloting projects embedding lifecycle thinking will further encourage businesses to transform their practices at a broader scale – and other stakeholders such as financial institutions to support these efforts. Specific attention to youth to further encourage innovation while counteracting unemployment should be anticipated.
Section III – Further information
- In 2020, an online reporting tool was launched to support implementation of United Nations Environment Assembly resolutions. The tool provides for a documenting, monitoring and reporting framework for resolutions based on analysis of planned implementation actions and links to the Programme of Work. It is also designed to be a publicly accessible tool. Updates and additional information on the implementation of resolution 4/1 are available through the online reporting tool.
 The UNEP paper ‘Building Circularity into our Economies through Sustainable Procurement’’ further describes how sustainable procurement practices can accelerate the shift towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production: https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/building-circularity-our-economies-through-sustainable-procurement
 As described in the recent UNEP Finance initiative report “Financing Circularity: Demystifying Finance for Circular Economies”: https://www.unepfi.org/publications/general-publications/financing-circularity/