Resource efficiency, life cycle assessments, and global collaboration
Our population is growing but our natural resources are not. Economic and social progress over the last century has been accompanied by environmental degradation that is endangering the very systems on which our future development and survival depend. The equivalent of almost three planets would be required to provide the natural resources required to sustain current lifestyles. As we meet our increasing demand for food, water, energy, and other human needs, we must ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns to avoid the degradation of the environment we draw our resources from.
SDG 12 demands a transition towards improved resource efficiency, consideration of the entire life cycle of economic activities, and active global engagement in multilateral environmental agreements. COVID-19 offers a chance to develop recovery plans that reverse current trends and incorporate a long-term sustainability perspective into our consumption and production patterns.
Targets and global progress
More than 70% of the world’s natural ecosystems – from rainforests to prairies to coastal zones – have been converted in some way to human use. Unsustainable use has led to land degradation with consequences like soil erosion, acidification, or biodiversity loss, and the acceleration of climate change resulting in worsening drought and water scarcity in many parts of the world. These trends underline the urgent need to strike a better balance between the ways in which we use resources and the measures we take to protect and restore them.
Other outcomes of unsustainable production and consumption patterns include a growing material footprint indicating the increasing pressure put on the environment to support economic growth, food waste leading to more loss of resources, pollution of water and air at a faster speed than what nature can re-purify, and waste streams like electronics or plastics characterized by very high longevity and harmful impacts in nature yet in reality low recycling rates.
Conventional approaches to dealing with environmental impacts of the production and consumption process have focused on controlling or remedying its downstream effects. This may however not be enough to address the overall reduction of adverse climate change and environmental impacts especially under the given time pressure. To achieve better outcomes for both the environment and the economy, the concept of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) takes into consideration the entire life cycle of materials and products and advocates innovative approaches to minimize pollution from across the value chain.
The UAE’s challenges
SDG 12 represents a critical goal for the UAE. To rank among the top 10 countries in the international SDG Index, the UAE will need to improve around 10% annually in the SDGs in which the country currently scores below 50%, such as SDG 12, which is within reach provided the country’s climate and environmental conditions, as well as its economic and industrial development.
Responsible production and consumption represent key areas of potential improvement given the UAE’s high turnover of industrial products and consumer goods. The country’s current achievement score of 44% for SDG 12 is largely due to its high generation of solid and e-waste, as well as its sulphur dioxide and nitrogen emissions. However, the country has already started tackling the progress of this SDG. In the UAE, SCP is integrated into the Green Agenda 2030. Sectors such as materials and construction, transport and mobility, and food and agriculture have been identified as key priorities for implementing SCP.
One example of SCP in the UAE is a partnership between Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA) and cement companies across the country. EGA successfully utilized spent pot lining – waste generated from aluminium production processes – in cement factories as an alternative energy source. This resulted in not only saving conventional fuels such as coal, but also reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides. Furthermore, this partnership has led to addressing global climate challenges by managing to reduce emissions by nearly 10% per ton of cement produced.
Food waste is another serious concern with almost 200kg of food wasted per capita each year. The UAE relies heavily on food imports due to limited domestic food production, yet as much as a third is estimated to end up in landfill – not only a waste of resources but also a source of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more damaging than CO2. Public awareness campaigns have been conducted to reduce food waste and to promote the purchase of locally grown produce. Since 2017 the Food Bank collects surplus food from retailers and food establishments and distributes it to people in need through charity associations.
Solid waste – and e-waste in particular – is another growing problem in affluent societies such as the UAE where the average citizen generates approximately 17.2 kg of e-waste annually. In 2019, Dubai e-waste specialist Enviroserve opened the Recycling Hub, the world’s largest e-waste recycling facility. The plant has a processing capacity of 100,000 tons of total waste per year, of which 39,000 tons is e-waste. In addition, the UAE has ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes. This shows that building the right waste management infrastructure along with enabling regulations is key to driving progress on SDG 12. Pioneering e-waste recycling initiatives known from other countries could be relevant to the UAE. South Korea for example has introduced the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) concept, which places the burden of disposal of the e-waste on the suppliers who must recycle a certain volume (by weight) of electric and electronic items set by the Ministry of Environment based on sales per item. An organization of producers allocates each supplier a recycling quota. To facilitate recycling with no additional investment, the government requires suppliers to provide a free pick-up of used electronic appliances from consumers for recycling or refurbishment. Refurbished goods can either be resold for profit by the companies through second-hand stores or donated. By requiring each region to establish a certain number of second-hand stores, the government encourages a mentality of reusing used goods among the population while providing opportunities for profit generation by the private sector.
Local companies’ engagement on responsible production
It is in businesses’ interest to find new solutions that enable sustainable consumption and production patterns. A better understanding of environmental and social impacts of products and services is needed, both of product life cycles and how these are affected by use within lifestyles. Identifying “hot spots” within the value chain where interventions have the greatest potential to improve the environmental and social impact of the whole system is a crucial first step. Innovation and design solutions can both enable and inspire individuals to make more sustainable consumption choices.
Examples of local businesses working towards the SDG of responsible production and consumption are:
- RAW Coffee
Sourcing premium green beans from around the world, RAW Coffee has selected the niche market looking for quality. The company emphasizes that their beans are ethically sourced and the farmers and their families growing the coffee are treated fairly and can make a sustainable living. RAW Coffee beans are all organically certified, roasted in small batches, and available to sample from their warehouse roastery either as single origins or blends. After the business started in 2007, the founders quickly realized coffee is also about the support and training they can give to the baristas, and finding equipment manufacturers they want to align themselves with, giving equal importance to quality production, fair trade, and ethical relations with customers, employees, and business partners alike.
- Freedom Pizza
Freedom Pizza is a local business established in 2012. To compete in the highly saturated food delivery market, the company emphasizes trusted personal relationships with business partners, digital operations that make the online ordering experience as easy, convenient, and enjoyable as possible, and high product quality using only the very best natural ingredients and fresh organic produce, free from preservatives and added hormones. Realizing their social and environmental responsibility as a food delivery business, Freedom Pizza continuously aims to improve the sustainability of their operations, for instance by removing plastic cutlery and straws entirely and offering only reusable options on demand.
- The Little Fair Trade Shop
The Little Fair Trade Shop supports highly skilled artisans, suppliers and manufacturers of fair trade and naturally recycled products and resources on a mission to promote self-reliance, empower artisans and their local communities, and give them the dignity they so rightly deserve. The Little Fair Trade Shop aims to educate, promote, and showcase the work of talented fair trade and ethical artisans and producers around the world while dispelling the myth that fair trade is ”charity”, and promoting the principles of a living wage, self-reliance, empowerment, transparency, environmental sustainability, dignity, and self-respect for all.
Individuals’ responsibility towards sustainable consumption
With SDG 12 it is very plain to see how we – as consumers – can contribute to the achievement of the goal with daily actions and small but consistent behaviour changes. The two main ways to do so are by focusing on waste reduction and by making conscious consumption choices. Small actions – like minimizing household food waste, avoiding single-use plastic, or recycling valuable materials – have a significant effect when done by a large number of people. Likewise, the impact of our combined purchasing power cannot be underestimated. Being informed and mindful about our purchasing decisions and choosing sustainable, low-impact, ethically produced, and long-living options where possible makes a positive difference for the environment and workers everywhere.
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Carolin started her career at a grassroots NGO in Cairo working on various projects ranging from economic development and community empowerment to health and social inclusion.
Since coming to the UAE in 2009, Carolin has balanced working at the country’s biggest German-speaking publication and completing her Master’s degree in Sustainable Development Cooperation.
Carolin’s goal is to make a difference for the public. For her that means working on a few key issues, with an emphasis on social and environmental projects that can foster new ideas, establish cross-sectoral partnerships, and achieve tangible results that serve the public interest.
Carolin joined Goumbook in 2020.