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“Somebody Else’s Problem – Consumerism, Sustainability and Design”

“Somebody Else’s Problem – Consumerism, Sustainability and Design”

This panel was organized on 5th September, 2017, at 12:00 UTC.



Deputy Director, China Australia Centre for Sustainable Urban Development

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This interview was organized as part of the Beyond Circular Economy theme of the 2017 Global Dialogue on Waste. This theme and its speakers explored a new robust vision for a circular economy, which is inclusive and equips it with the tools to address some of the most pressing problems of our times.



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Selby Wilkinson summarized the interview and put together a set of interesting quotes.


ROBERT CROCKER, Deputy Director, China Australia Centre for Sustainable Urban Development

Solutions follow problems. When you understand a problem well enough, the solution will come along.

  • We need to start looking at the systems of everyday life and behavior (like cars, transport, communication) until you understand the extent of the system and how it has been internalized, then we can begin making changes to these systems.
  • Consumption tends to be separated from the environment, its not seen as an environmental issue. It’s only very recently that people have started talking about the impact of consumption on the environment.
  • There are people wanting to escape the problem of our rapidly changing world and climate change by saying that its not really happening and by saying that its good because there are a lot of people who are no longer in extreme poverty. This is just avoiding the issues we have of dramatic material changes driven by technology, industrial efficiency producing so much material, scientific changes which are very dramatic along with an environmental crisis which is becoming more and more disturbing.

What happens when everyone is trying to help the system produce more things for more people? You end up with products like the throwaway coffee cup.

  • When you make a system more efficient, you tend to lower costs and this then often generates more consumption.
  • The throwaway coffee cup: We can recycle it, we can create new technologies to separate but is it worth cutting down all those forests and taking all that water to make something so wasteful and so irresponsible?

Consumption and impact on the planet are dictated mostly by systems and infrastructure rather than by individual behavior.

  • Even if you’re the greenest person in the world, you will still make an impact because of the way your systems and infrastructure are already set up.
  • Systems are larger than individual actions because take, for example, the way people interact with systems in their home (electricity, power, gas), they dont determine where these come from.
  • Perhaps your time is better spent ringing your MP or congressmen and trying to get engaged with others in trying to change these systems, in trying to change politically a system that tends to encourage over-consumption and waste.
  • The concern with the global development goals is that we seem to be enriching one part of the world at the expense of another

I’m very wary of blaming individuals because I think it tends to divert people from the importance of systems

  • A focus on the individual tends to encourage more consumption (green consumerism), there is no such thing as a perfectly green object, we measure them against benchmarks that are greener (eg. A Prius 10 years ago vs todays Tesla), they all have a footprint and impact.
  • The issue with sustainable consumption is that if we keep making things faster and cheaper, we are not necessarily making the things we really need or the things that will last and be really useful to us.
  • Products are being engineered to encourage repeat purchase because they are allowed to externalize waste and the real cost of resources.
  • Economically we need a lot of changes to implement a genuinely circular economy.
  • The messaging from big companies is concerning when they claim to have easy one step “fixes” to help change the world such as riding a bike.
  • We don’t recognize that often some of the poorest people are the most locked into the systems, forced to accept whatever the system gives them

Recycling is not the solution that everyone imagines it to be.

  • Recyclability is very important but even better is to make things that last longer and can be used longer even if they are a bit more expensive.
  • The problem involves many different players, the solution is collaboration on design.
  • You cant solve all the problems on your own, it requires help from a wide range of people in different professions.
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