The SDGs are a striking set of goals that potentially could facilitate major changes across the world. SDG 12—to ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’ (SCPs)—is fundamental and exceptionally broad. But both political and technical factors have contributed to a watered-down set of SDG 12 targets and indicators. These need to be revisited, deepened and added to in national and local level plans for the goal to live up to much of its promise.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, have many notable features. They apply for all countries. They link economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals’ narrower focus on poverty, education and health. And not least, they include an exceptionally broad Goal 12: to ‘Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns’ (SCP). How did this goal arise and what might it mean in practice? We have been looking at this as one part of a research project on the SDGs, coordinated from the New School University in New York and the University of Oslo.
To understand how the stand-alone SDG 12 and its targets emerged, we studied the 2013-14 discussions in the intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs established by the UN General Assembly. The OWG proposals for SDG 12 were adopted in an unchanged form after further negotiations in the General Assembly in 2015. We explored, too, the subsequent work of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators in 2015-16. We conclude that both political and technical factors have contributed to a watered-down set of SCP targets and indicators, which need to be revisited, deepened and added to.
A stand-alone goal on SCP…
The successful push for a stand-alone goal on SCP represents a partial success for developing countries in trying to ensure application in the SDGs of the Rio principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR). Richer countries implicitly bear primary responsibility for a SCP goal since they have, and have long had, the greatest environmental impacts per person.
The OWG discussions show that while wealthier countries argued for shared responsibility and for SCP to be only a cross-cutting theme across all SDGs, many developing countries emphasised CBDR and the duty and necessity for richer countries to act first and do more, and hence pressed for a stand-alone SCP goal. They argued, too, that any universal goal on SCP should not compromise their priorities of poverty eradication and socio-economic progress.
The eventual adoption of a stand-alone goal also reflects developing countries’ strong concerns about their ability to access green technologies. Many countries, not least India, were adamant on strengthening the visibility of rich countries’ responsibility to share technologies needed to produce energy and goods cleanly, and to counteract the bias in market-centered innovation whereby intellectual property rights help to motivate innovators but also limit diffusion, especially to poorer countries. The inclusion of targets on scientific and technological support to developing countries in SDG 12 (and on technology transfer in SDG 17) serve to heighten public attention to this issue, even though they are not directly actionable since they depend on the cooperation of patent-holding private corporations.
…but with often vague and diluted contents…
The positions in the OWG discussions reflected deeper disagreements about the nature of SCP and the paths to reach it, including the ethical and production choices to be made and the distribution of costs and benefits of these efforts. The negotiations on targets brought considerable dilution of ambition; nearly all ‘targets’ are really sub-goals rather than specific targets and have often remained vague. They are universal in nature but practically all references calling on developed countries to ‘take the lead’ were removed. Removal, too, of almost all percentage references means that countries are not committing to specific quantified improvements. So progress will depend on the interest and priorities within individual countries.
Further, developing a set of strong and relevant indicators to measure and stimulate progress on SDG 12 will at best be a long process. The weakness as yet of many of the globally formulated indicators reflects the problems of operationalising what are sometimes vague and novel targets, and the limited political interest in a primarily technical exercise in which specialised UN Agencies and National Statistical Offices (NSOs) predominate. Moreover, the process of deciding upon the current indicators was highly compressed in time. In several areas, for example regarding corporate reporting, the indicators are mere publication counts.
While many targets under SDG 12 do not yet have very satisfactory indicators, enunciation of the targets may spur further work. Both the indicator specification and target monitoring need ongoing improvement, including at national level, where there will sometimes be scope for augmenting the targets too. Unfortunately, NSOs and other responsible parties typically do not yet have a clear and resourced mandate to collect the data required, let alone improve it. How far will national governments invest in the monitoring framework?
…and centred on technological innovation rather than consumption restraint…
SDG 12 is not only extremely broad but, whereas most other SDGs have been achieved to more or less satisfactory extents in at least some countries, sustainable consumption and production (SCP) have not yet been realised anywhere. So what is required is here perhaps even more open to debate. SDG 12 itself tacitly focuses on improving production and consumption, not reducing these processes. They can supposedly continue to grow indefinitely, as long as they become ‘smart’. Many researchers have argued, since the 1960s, that sustainability requires a fundamental rethink of not only production and distribution processes—to reduce waste, absorb by-products, and so on—but also of the culture of ever-growing consumption and the underlying systems of societal organisation and motivation, including by building an orientation towards consuming less while ‘living more’ and more equitably. The SDG 12 targets say little on such issues, apart from promoting ‘awareness for sustainable development’ (Target 12.8) through attention in formal schooling. Fundamental reorientation of consumer societies was a theme in many fora that fed into the SDG negotiations, but not into the outcomes.
SDG 12 continues, instead, the interpretation of SCP which emerged from ‘green business’ circles in the 1980s and 1990s (now sometimes called ‘eco-modernism’): that technical innovation will supposedly dramatically reduce ‘material footprints’ and allow production and consumption to grow endlessly. This perspective long ago became prominent also in UNEP, the coordinating agency for SDG 12 discussions, and in the Marrakech Process that followed up on SCP after the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. No major new pro-business lobbying or interventions in 2012-15 were needed for this perspective to dominate the formulation of SDG 12. The approach emphasises voluntary, informed consumption and production decisions, rather than regulation. It rests on hopes that existing and soon-to-be-developed technologies can obviate the need for restraint and politically difficult discussions.
…yet offering a space for increased attention and future mobilisation ?
At present SDG 12 does not adequately reflect transformative conceptualisations of SCP. The targets appear often diluted and vague, and the indicators further narrow the scope and ambition. There is little attention to moderating consumption. SDG 12 does, though, provide major spaces for attention to SCP from relevant agencies and publics, worldwide, while underlining to some extent the CBDR principle. In an optimistic scenario the goal and targets would induce domestic mobilisation and country-specific reform, that would lead to augmentation of targets, innovation in indicators for both monitoring and demanding action, and broader innovations in thinking-and-doing for real sustainability.
 The CBDR principle was adopted at the 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’, the UN Conference on Environment and Development.
 See e.g. V. Mignaqui, 2014, Sustainable Development as a Goal, International J. of Social Quality 4(1): 57-77.
Picture credit: John Henderson
About the authors:
Des Gasper is Professor at ISS in Human Development and Public Policy.
Amod Shah is a PhD candidate at the ISS, focusing on land acquisition-related conflict in India.
Sunil Tankha is Assistant Professor of States, Societies and World Development at the ISS.