United Nations
Commission on Sustainable Development

Background Paper

                           THE GLOBAL CONSUMER

                  Division for Sustainable Development
               Department of Economic and Social Affairs

   Background paper for the United Nations Inter-Regional Expert Group
       Meeting on Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption: 
                 New Guidelines for the Global Consumer 

                         Sao Paulo, Brazil
                        28-30 January 1998


                        THE GLOBAL CONSUMER


1     Introduction and Background                                          1

      1.1   Origin of the Guidelines                                       2

      1.2   Extension of the Guidelines to include 
            Sustainable Consumption                                        2

2     Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption                      3

      2.1   Regional Cooperation in Consumer Protection                    4

      2.2   Sustainable Consumption                                        6

      2.3   Why Review the UN Guidelines ?                                 8

3     Extension of the Guidelines: Key Issues                              9

      3.1   Consumer Empowerment                                          10

      3.2   Sound Industrial Products and Practices                       11

      3.3   Cross-Cutting Issues                                          14

      3.4   International Co-operation                                    19

      Notes                                                               21


In 1972, in a statement to the United Nations Conference on the Human
Environment, the International Organization of Consumers Unions
recognized why consumer organizations should be concerned with
environmental issues : 

The problems of the environment are essentially the problems of
ordinary individuals. Whether in the sphere of human settlements,
natural resources or pollution, it is the well-being or even
survival of ordinary individuals that is at stake. And where the
environment is being damaged, the damage is being done by
individuals. Sometimes they are consumers acting irresponsibly.
More often they are consumers forced to use unsuitable products,
or industrial or other organizations acting or claiming to act in
the consumer■s interest. So, collective action to protect the
environment can only be achieved when there is wide spread
individual awareness of the environmental consequences of

The issues addressed in the discussions of consumer protection and
sustainable consumption are varied and complex. To propose an integration
of the two provides an even greater challenge. Though the concept of
integrating sustainable consumption within consumer protection policy may
be familiar to some people, it may be entirely new to others. The
objective of this background paper is to provide a theoretical
orientation and practical grounding in the issues and debates related to
the extension of the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection
to include sustainable consumption. The paper provides an overview of
regional initiatives in the area of consumer protection and sustainable
consumption and outlines some of the ideas that have been raised in the
discussion of this issue, in order to provide a framework for
consideration during the Inter-Regional Expert Group Meeting on Consumer
Protection and Sustainable Consumption: New Guidelines for the Global
Consumer, to be held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 28-30, 1998.

The existing provisions of the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer
Protection are not to be re-negotiated, but rather revisited in light of
sustainable development issues in general, and sustainable consumption
in particular. The outcome of the meeting will be ideas, suggestions and
proposed text to be submitted to the meetings of the Ad-Hoc Inter-
Sessional Working Group of the Commission on Sustainable Development
(CSD), in February 1998; the 6th Session of the CSD in April 1998; and
the Substantive Session of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in
July 1998. 

The Department for Economic and Social Affairs would like to express its
appreciation to the Environment Secretariat of the State Government of
S■o Paulo for generously offering to host the Expert Group Meeting, in
co-operation with the Latin American Parliament and the Ministry of
Environment, Water Resources and the Amazon. In addition, we would like
to thank Consumers International (CI) for their long-term and critical
role in promoting the extension of the United Nations Guidelines, and for
undertaking a consultation process to call international attention to
this important issue.


In 1985, the United Nations General Assembly adopted, by consensus, the
United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection in its resolution
39/85. The Guidelines constitute a comprehensive policy framework
outlining what governments need to do to promote consumer protection in
the following eight areas: basic needs, safety, information, choice,
representation, redress, consumer education and healthy environment.
While not legally binding, the Guidelines provide an internationally
recognized set of basic objectives. The Guidelines are particularly
designed for governments of developing and newly independent countries
to use in structuring and strengthening consumer protection policies and
legislation. The Guidelines were adopted "recognizing that consumers
often face imbalances in economic terms, education levels, and bargaining
power, and bearing in mind that consumers should have the right of access
to non-hazardous products, as well as the importance of promoting just,
equitable, and sustainable economic and social development." 2/ In this
respect, consumer protection was to address not only issues of product
safety and economic efficiency, but also to promote social justice and
economic development.

The consumer protection movement, which began in Europe and North America
in the 1960s, reached the international stage in the 1970s when the
Economic and Social Council requested the  Secretary-General to formulate
a "survey of national institutions and legislation in the area of
consumer protection" 3/, which was later followed by a comprehensive
report containing proposals for consumer policy and legislation to be
considered by Member States. By the  early 1980s, it was apparent that
an  international policy framework was needed to provide general guidance
and specific objectives, addressing the particular needs of developing
countries. It was in this context that ECOSOC requested the Secretary-
General to continue consultations with Member States and international
organizations. In 1983, draft guidelines for consumer protection were
submitted to ECOSOC. In 1985, following extensive discussions and
negotiations among Governments on the objectives, specific content and
scope of the Guidelines, the Guidelines were adopted by consensus. 4/


Since 1985, increased attention has been given to linkages between
environmental concerns and economic and social development, involving
discussions in new areas such as that of sustainable consumption. A
chapter devoted specifically to the relationship between consumption and
production patterns and sustainable development was included in Agenda
21, which was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Work in this area
has continued within the United Nations system through the  establishment
of the Commission on Sustainable Development and its International Work
Programme on Changing Consumption and Production Patterns.

In 1995, a recommendation was adopted by the Commission on Sustainable
Development to expand the Guidelines for Consumer Protection to cover
sustainable consumption.

According to ECOSOC Resolution 1995/53, the Council  "Requests the
Secretary-General, in cooperation with the development funds and
programmes of the United Nations, the regional commissions and
other relevant bodies and agencies of the United Nations system,
to continue to provide assistance to governments, at their
request, in implementing the guidelines for consumer protection,
to elaborate guidelines in the area of sustainable consumption
patterns, taking into account the work undertaken in other
intergovernmental forums, and to examine the possible extension of
those guidelines into other areas." 5/

ECOSOC later requested, in resolution 1997/53, that the Secretary-General
continue efforts to implement the Guidelines for Consumer Protection and
to continue work on the elaboration of the Guidelines to encompass
sustainable consumption patterns and other areas. In addition, ECOSOC
requested that the extension of the Guidelines be undertaken through an
inter-regional expert group meeting, in collaboration with interested
Governments, Consumers International and other concerned entities in this
field. This meeting has been organized to elaborate specific
recommendations for the extension of the Guidelines in the area of
sustainable consumption for submission to the 1998 session of ECOSOC,
through the six session of the Commission on Sustainable Development. 6/

Consumers International (CI) has played an integral role in the
preparatory work for the extension of the UN Guidelines for Consumer
Protection, promoting an understanding of the issues. In ECOSOC
resolution 1997/53, which was sponsored by Brazil and Chile and co-
sponsored by 15 Member States, 7/ Consumers International was requested
to prepare draft inputs for the new guidelines, incorporating elements
of sustainable consumption. Proposed texts prepared by Consumers
International on the basis of extensive consultations among its members
in many countries are integrated into this report, along with background
information prepared by the United Nations Secretariat. Further
proposals, or revisions to the CI proposals, may be submitted, and will
be considered during the Inter-Regional Expert Group Meeting.


The establishment of standards and guidelines to protect consumers is not
new to the United Nations system. The Commission on Transnational
Corporations, established in 1974,  prepared a draft code of conduct for
multinational corporations, although no such code was adopted. WHO and
FAO prepared the "Codex Alimentarius" Commission to develop guidelines
in the areas of food safety and standards, including the formulation of
international standards and codes of practice on a wide range of food
commodities, the encouragement to consumers to participate in decision-
making on all matters related to food quality and safety, labelling and
advertising, and the integration of food safety into health education
programmes. 8/ Other activities in the area of consumer protection include
the Consolidated List of Products Whose Consumption and/or Sale Have been
Banned, Withdrawn, Severely Restricted or Not Approved by Governments,
which provides information on products harmful to health and the
environment 9/, the International Programme on Chemical Safety, and the
London Guidelines for the Exchange of Information on Chemicals in
International Trade. 

The Economic and Social Council has adopted a number of resolutions which
mandate the United Nations to promote the implementation of the
Guidelines for Consumer Protection. Pursuant to these mandates, a number
of activities in the area of consumer protection have taken place,
including initiatives  in partnership with international consumer
organizations such as Consumers International, donors, and host
Governments to convene regional conferences on consumer protection. A
seminar on Consumer Protection in Latin American and the Caribbean was
held in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1987, and a seminar on Consumer
Protection for Asia and the Pacific was held in Bangkok, Thailand, in
1990. The objective of the seminars was to assist Governments to enact
and enforce consumer protection policies and legislation. 

During the last decade, there has been increased awareness amongst
consumers that their purchasing choices impact on the environment.
Through various media campaigns sponsored by governments and NGOs,
consumers are urged to consider not only the quality of goods, but also
the conditions under which goods are made, and to distinguish needs from
desires. The inclusion of sustainable consumption objectives in the
Guidelines for Consumer Protection would reinforce recognition of the
crucial role that consumers can play in protecting the global

While the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection remain
relevant for all countries, in countries where governmental interest in
consumer protection is relatively recent, the Guidelines define essential
issues to be dealt with, such as in the areas of health and safety,
access to goods and services, and measures for redress. ECOSOC in
resolution 1995/52, recognized  :

"that the need for assistance in the area of consumer protection,
particularly in developing countries and countries with economies
in transition, remains great."

Many countries have not yet developed or enacted policies or measures to
protect consumers. In many countries, governments have only recently
become sensitized to the issues related to consumer protection, or become
aware of the ideas and experiences of other countries in this area. The
United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection can assist in the
identification of  priorities, particularly in light of emerging trends
in a globalized and liberalized world economy. 

The Guidelines have also provided a useful policy framework for developed
countries. In Finland, the Guidelines were used in formulating national
consumer policy and drafting a consumer policy programme in 1991. 10/


The majority of OECD countries have created institutional and regulatory
frameworks in the field of consumer policy that generally cover all of
the elements of the Guidelines for Consumer Protection. However, the
growth of the consumer movement was somewhat different between the United
States and European countries. The growth of -consumerism■ in the United
States and Canada preceded that in other OECD countries, and the consumer
movement was galvanized by concern over automobile safety issues and
undertaken by independent consumer organizations. The growth of the
consumer movement in Europe evolved at a slower pace, although consumer
interest groups were faced with similar issues as their North American
counterparts. In some European countries, the consumer movement was
undertaken by public or semi-public interest groups, such as trade
unions. 11/

A framework on consumer protection is just beginning to emerge in many
developing countries. A number of regional seminars and conferences on
consumer protection have been organized to bring together people from the
public and private sectors concerned with issues of consumer protection
for the exchange of ideas and experiences, information dissemination, and
to establish a framework for legislative and institutional development
in the various regions. 

The Africa Conference on Consumer Protection, held in 1996 in Harare,
Zimbabwe, launched the Model Law for Africa, designed to serve as a guide
for African Governments in their efforts to develop appropriate policies,
legislation and enforcement mechanisms to protect the African consumer.
The Conference brought together African government officials, consumer
leaders and experts, and members of the international community concerned
with consumer protection in Africa. The Conference also stressed the need
for countries of the region to enact and enforce consumer protection
policies and legislation, since at the time there were still 16 countries
in the region that did not have consumer organizations or bodies
concerned with issues of consumer protection. The Africa meeting
identified a number of areas that require special attention, including
health, safety, access to goods and services, and measures for redress.
It also examined areas requiring future action, such as sustainable
consumption patterns, financial services and consumer representation.
Issues related to the equitable distribution of services to consumers,
including basic services (health, water, electricity, gas), strategies
for protecting consumers■ needs and interests, and the promotion of
education and public awareness to enable individuals to become critical
consumers, were also discussed. 12/

In Africa, at the time of the adoption of the Guidelines in 1985, six
consumer organizations in four countries had been established. Today,
more than 40 African countries are host to more than 80 consumer
organizations. 13/ This remarkable growth in institution building reflects
the influence of the Guidelines,  democratic reforms, and the increasing
activity of civil society. However, while a number of Governments have
recently implemented measures in this area, consumer protection
legislation is still very weak in the majority of African countries and
further efforts are needed to develop it.

The 1997 Asia and Pacific Conference on the theme "Consumers in the
Global Age" sought to give new impetus to the progress that had been
achieved in promoting consumer protection since the first regional
seminar on consumer protection, which was held in Bangkok in 1990. A
number of resolutions were adopted by the conference, including calls for
the establishment of a group to draft proposals for amending the
Guidelines for Consumer Protection and for the elaboration of a model law
on consumer protection for the countries of Asia and the Pacific. At the
conference, an Asia and Pacific consumer protection network of government
officials was established, which a number of countries have already

A meeting was held in 1987 in Montevideo, Uruguay, on the protection of
consumers in Latin America and the Caribbean. That seminar led to a
number of tangible results, including the establishment of  an informal
communications network among the organizations of the region dedicated
to consumer protection, and the development of national and international
data banks. The Government of Uruguay is performing the role of
Secretariat for the communications network and is publishing a bulletin
containing information on consumer affairs within the region.
Furthermore, the seminar, by bringing together Government participants
in the region, had a strong catalytic impact on consumer policy at the
national level. Several governments approved legislation based on the
Guidelines and/or established institutional structures to deal
specifically with consumer issues. 

Today, consumer rights are legally recognized in thirteen Latin American
and Caribbean nations, and within seven of these countries, they are also
included in the Constitution. Central American countries generally do not
have extensive laws for protecting the rights of the consumer.
Nevertheless, during the last two years, four countries have created or
strengthened legal norms in this area: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador
and Panama. New consumer organizations galvanized by the participation
of civil society have also been established in the region, and have
carried out activities such as consumer education, consumer information
and guidance, research on problems  affecting the consumer, and lobbying.
In South America, the governments of Bolivia and Paraguay are presently
negotiating legislation to protect consumer rights. Although Brazil has
the region's most comprehensive legislation, one hundred proposed
amendments are viewed by consumers organizations as attempts to weaken
the country's consumer policy. 

The User and Consumer Advocacy Commission and the Latin American
Parliament approved the Referential Framework Code for Consumer and User
Advocacy at a meeting in Guayaquil, Ecuador in June 1997. 16/ This code
provides guidelines for advancing consumer advocacy and rights in the
region, including, promotion of sustainable consumption based on respect
for the environment.


During the five years that have passed since Rio, much attention has been
focused on trying to understand the implications of changing consumption
and production patterns for the environment and economy. The concept of
sustainable consumption and production provides a framework for
recognizing that  economic policy can potentially contribute to, or
alleviate, environmental stress. Sustainable consumption and production
are inextricably linked. The emphasis on sustainable production is on the
supply side of the equation, focusing on improving environmental
performance in key economic sectors, such as agriculture, energy, and
transport. Sustainable consumption addresses the demand side, looking at
how goods and services required to meet basic needs and improve the
quality of life - such as food, shelter, clothing, mobility and leisure -
can be selected in ways that reduce the burden on the Earth's carrying
capacity. 17/

Since the Earth Summit, work on sustainable consumption has been carried
out by governments, international institutions, business groups, citizens
organizations and research institutions. The greatest progress has been
made on advancing the conceptual framework and promoting discussion of 
the issue among a wider group of stakeholders. The need for substantial
improvements in resource efficiency and further efforts to reduce
pollution and change in lifestyles over the coming decades is now
accepted by many European governments. The issue will be the major theme
of the 1998 UNDP Human Development Report. In addition, many business
organizations, in particular the World Business Council for Sustainable
Development, the International Chamber of Commerce  Environment Committee
and the US Council for International Business, have given a high priority
to the issue of sustainable consumption in their work agendas.

Much of the political momentum behind the sustainable production and
consumption agenda at the United Nations since Rio has been generated by
a few committed governments, notably Brazil, the Netherlands, Norway and
The Republic of Korea. Norway, for example, has brought together 
researchers, practitioners and politicians at two international meetings
(Oslo Symposium, 1994 and Oslo Roundtable, 1995), which resulted in a
broad policy "menu" of actions for sustainable production and
consumption. 18/ The Republic of Korea, Brazil and Norway also collaborated
in an  encounter between "North" and "South" to spell out a "common
agenda" in the Brasilia Workshop in 1996.

OECD governments have been carrying out a range of actions at the
operational level, for instance  "greening" the tax system, introducing
extended producer responsibility for goods and services, improving
consumer information, reforming public procurement and providing
development assistance for efforts in emerging economies. 19/ A number of
OECD governments, including Australia, the United Kingdom and the United
States, have hosted international workshops to gain a deeper
understanding of policy options. A key challenge for the future is to
strengthen the links between  global and local levels. International
organizations such as the OECD, business organizations such as the WBCSD,
and NGOs, including the International Institute for Environment and
Development and Friends of the Earth, have developed work programmes on
sustainable production and consumption patterns. UNEP has developed a
Cleaner Production Programme, established prior to the Earth Summit,
which complements the sustainable consumption action plan outlined in
Agenda 21.

It is apparent that without strong efforts by governments, business and
civil society, the environmental degradation caused by current patterns
of consumption will worsen in the years ahead. However, there is also
considerable inertia against effective change within politics, markets
and society, for the conventional economic growth model and its vision
of prosperity has played a central role in the economic, political and
psycho-social foundation of western society, and has become a basis for
political consensus and stability. During the 1950s, the growth of 
demand for consumer products, known as the "revolution of rising
expectations" 20/ was considered a benchmark of development and was
cultivated and encouraged in the developing world. It is currently
understood that the emulation of environmentally-damaging consumption
practices of the industrialised world in the rapidly growing emerging
economies can make a major contribution to future environmental stress.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada, in co-
operation with the Division for Sustainable Development, has developed
a website which highlights a number of recent and innovative instruments
being implemented in various countries to promote sustainable production
and consumption. 21/ At the present time, the implementation of such
instruments is mostly voluntary, with  governments setting policy
priorities and targets and business and industry complying with those
targets within the constraints of their financial and institutional


The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection address the
interests and needs of consumers world-wide and recognize two principal
concerns, the imbalances that consumers face in economic terms, education
levels and bargaining power, and the importance of promoting just,
equitable and sustainable economic and social development.

The objectives that the Guidelines seek to promote are quite wide-
ranging:  (i) to assist countries in achieving adequate protection for
their population as consumers; (ii) to promote production and
distribution patterns responsive to the needs and desires of consumers;
(iii) to  encourage high levels of ethical conduct by those engaged in
the production and distribution of goods and services to consumers; (iv)
to assist countries in curbing abusive business practices by all
enterprises at the national and international levels that adversely
affect consumers; (v) to facilitate the development of independent
consumer groups; (vi) to further international co-operation in the field
of consumer protection; and (vii) to encourage the development of market
conditions that provide consumers with greater choice at lower prices. 

Since the Guidelines were adopted in 1985, there have been some major
changes in national economies and the international situation that might
be taken into account in the extension of the Guidelines.  On  the
national level, the privatization of public enterprises and the
introduction of competition into new service areas are requiring
consumers to make new choices that require new information.  On the
international level, the increase in global trade is presenting consumers
with an expanding variety of products from unfamiliar producers, making
it more difficult to make informed choices.

The United Nations Guidelines were not intended to be a static document.
They need to be revisited in the light of changes in social, political
and economic systems. Extending the United Nations  Guidelines to include
sustainable consumption patterns would be an important step in this


Regional economic integration in  the Southern Common Market, or MERCOSUR,
affects 200 million consumers within a free-trade zone encompassing Brazil,
Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Chile and Bolivia as associate members.
Trade among MERCOSUR countries has grown at an average of 27 percent annually,
and one-fifth of the four countries■ foreign trade is now conducted with other
MERCOSUR members. Consumer protection has not been an issue in the  trade

Consumer groups in MERCOSUR countries are concerned about the downgrading of
consumer protection standards to the lowest common denominator. The defence of
standards and regulations in the member countries is one of the biggest
challenges facing consumer organizations. Argentina and Brazil have
established consumer protection laws, whereas Uruguay and Paraguay lack
national legislation. Of the MERCOSUR associate members, Chile enacted
legislation in 1997, while the drafting process in Bolivia is just beginning.
(Consumers International, World Consumer, No.226)


Since a decade has now passed since the adoption of the Guidelines, it is now
time to take stock. There can be no doubt as to the moral force and normative
impact the Guidelines have had, and continue to have, around the globe in
improving the quality of life of consumers in an increasingly interdependent
world. It may then, now be timely for the international community to consider
the need for the revision and refinement of the Guidelines, and also to use
this as an opportunity to provide a stimulus for increased international
cooperation in the area of consumer protection. 22/

The proposed texts included below have been submitted by Consumers
International (CI) at the request of ECOSOC, and are based on extensive
consultations with CI members. Experts are invited to consider
the CI proposals in terms of their effectiveness in addressing the key issues
and their appropriateness for incorporation into the UN Guidelines for
Consumer Protection and national consumer protection policy.
These proposals  are meant to serve as a catalyst for reflection, debate
and discussion, and to facilitate discussion in working groups during the
Inter-Regional Expert Group Meeting. The proposals are not intended to
be comprehensive, and additional proposals from experts can be


Consumers should be aware of  the potential effects of the products they
purchase. They must also be informed in order to become familiar with the
types of products available in the marketplace. Consumer empowerment,
includes not only informed choice,  but remedial mechanisms as well, such
as remedy and redress in case of fraud.

-     Consumer Education 

Consumer education, an on-going process, should  provide consumers with
information and reinforce their capacity to think critically about
product choices. In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness
of the link between consumption and the environment. However, that
awareness can only be translated into action if consumers are given the
necessary information to make informed choices relating to
environmentally sound consumption patterns and lifestyles. Education and
public awareness in this area should be a priority and must be placed
high on the political agenda to promote sustainable development and sound
consumer policy. Consumer education with respect to environmental
concerns is a new field that needs to be further developed.

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should educate, or support the education, of consumers
on the environmental impacts of lifestyles; the options for
improvement - including extending the useful life of products,
even if they are out of fashion; and the benefits of more
sustainable consumption. Special attention should be paid to
incorporating environmental curricula at every level of the formal
education system. Citizens■ organizations should be involved in
these educational efforts. 

-     Consumer Representation   

There is increased awareness of the importance of integrating civil
society in policy-making, including consumer policy. It is important to
ensure that the views of all social groups are taken into account in
decisions related to consumer standards and codes, including through
consultative or judicial mechanisms for public intervention.

Consumers International Proposal:
Promoting sustainable consumption requires governments to act in
partnership with all citizens. Women have a particularly powerful
role in sustainable consumption because of their central role in
providing for family needs. Governments should also actively
involve, and support, consumer and other citizens■ organizations
engaged in the promotion of sustainable production and

-     Access to redress mechanisms 

Consumer protection policy should provide for effective public access to
judicial and administrative proceedings in the case of  non-compliance
with laws and regulations. The existing Guidelines do not mention
compensation to consumers injured by defective products explicitly,
although they do address measures to enhance product safety. Information
on redress mechanisms should be made available to consumers, and such
mechanisms should be expeditious, fair, inexpensive and accessible.

Consumers International Proposal:
In order to ensure compliance with laws and regulations relating
to sustainable consumption, governments should provide effective
access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including
redress and remedy. 


The promotion of products and production processes that reduce impacts
on the environment and non-renewable resources is an integral component
of consumer protection. Sustainable industrial practices require that
businesses -produce more from less■ and links the goals of product
quality with environmental protection.

-     Testing   

Testing and public dissemination of test results, whether by government,
consumer, environmental or other organizations, can help consumers choose
safe, durable and environmentally sound products. They thereby encourage
industry to improve products.

Testing and evaluation of products can include analysis of the full life-
cycle environmental impact of the product, thus allowing consumers to
contribute to sustainable consumption through informed choice of
products. Expanding international trade suggests that international co-
operation in the testing and evaluation of products and dissemination of
information can increase the benefits of such activities while reducing

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should encourage, develop and support environmental
testing of products as well as international collaboration on
joint testing, training and the development of common testing

-     Advertising 

Global spending on advertising has increased from $39 billion in 1950 to
$256 billion in 1990, representing $48 per person. Advertising in
developing countries, although it remains small scale by 
western standards, is growing fast. In Latin American countries such as
Mexico and Brazil, spending on advertising is approximately $25 per
capita. 23/ The role of advertising and the media is critical in
sustainable consumption and consumers  require greater protection from
false or exaggerated claims, including environmental claims.

Consumers International Proposal: 
Governments should take specific measures against misleading
information to consumers such as the development of advertising
codes and standards and the regulation and verification of
environmental claims, backed by legal sanctions.

-     Eco-labelling 

To assist consumers faced with the proliferation of -green■ products, the
use of labels with a logo that identifies environmentally sound products
has been implemented in various countries. In the context of increasing
international trade, it may be useful to implement a standardised system,
international or regional  in scope, for the environmental labelling of

Approximately 30 eco-labelling schemes exist worldwide, mostly in
developed countries, but also in some newly industrialised countries,
including Brazil, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. The information on green
labels is often based on life-cycle analyses, which track the
environmental impacts of products through production, distribution,
consumption and disposal. Independent certification or verification of
manufacturers environmental claims is generally required for eco-

It is important that non-discriminatory eco-labelling as well as non-
discriminatory certification and verification schemes be developed,
taking into account the institutional capacity for testing and
verification. It may be unavoidable that national product standards with
specific environmental requirements will be  considered as barriers to
trade by other countries whose products do not meet the standards.

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should promote the provision of truthful information
about the environmental profile and/or impact of products and
services through means such as eco-labelling schemes, product
information hotlines, product profiles, environmental reports by
industry and information centres for consumers. They should also
promote accords on internationally-recognized symbols for
environmental labelling. Information to consumers on the
environmental and health impact of the production and consumption
of a given product should not constitute a means of arbitrary or
unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on
international trade. 

Governments should cooperate on the development, promotion and
independent certification of national and international voluntary
standards for environmental management and auditing and for
products and services, with due regard to the specific
environmental, social and economic conditions in the producing
countries, and to their impact on market access and the
competitiveness of those products and services.

-     Reuse, repair, recycling and waste reduction

Governments can promote reuse, repair and recycling of products, thereby
reducing consumption of materials and energy. Voluntary and mandatory
recycling programmes exist in many cities in developing countries and are
steadily expanding.  

Current consumption and marketing patterns not only consume unnecessary
material and energy, but also generate large quantities of waste due to
disposable or short-lived products and large amounts of packaging.
Landfill sites for burying this waste are becoming more difficult to find
and more costly, and they may result in contamination of groundwater and
soil. Incineration can result in air pollution and more concentrated
toxic waste.  Efforts are therefore needed to reduce the volume of waste
generated and to change the nature of the waste to reduce environmental

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should promote the development, and the demand, for
products that have a high performance, durable, recyclable,
repairable and reusable and are neither toxic or unsafe.
Governments should introduce waste prevention programmes and
encourage the provision of facilities for the repair and recycling
of used products.

-     Extended product responsibility 

The OECD has estimated that -if present trends continue, 50% of the
products that will be in use in 15 years do not yet exist.■ There is
therefore an opportunity to influence the new markets that will grow
around these new products and services to ensure that these products are
not only new but also sustainable.

Extended product responsibility is an emerging concept that uses the
life-cycle approach to identify strategic opportunities for cleaner
production and eco-efficiency. All those involved in the production and
consumption of products, including manufacturers, distributors and users,
have a role to play in minimising the negative environmental effects of
products. Sharing responsibility for environmental effects can yield a
more efficient use of resources, cleaner products and technologies,
improved relations between companies and communities, and responsible
consumer choices.

-     Environmentally harmful materials

Products that are particularly harmful to the environment and that are
not economically or socially essential can be banned or severely
restricted. The United Nations, in cooperation with WHO and UNEP,
publishes a "Consolidated list of products whose consumption and/or sale
have been banned, withdrawn, severely restricted or not approved by
governments", the fifth issue of which (ST/ESA/239) was published in
1994. It covers pharmaceutical, agricultural, industrial and consumer
products considered harmful to health and the environment and identifies
the countries which restrict each product and the reasons for the
restriction. This publication may be useful to countries in deciding
which products to ban or restrict.

The 1990 Montreal Protocol to the 1985 Vienna Convention on the
Protection of the Ozone Layer bans the production of chlorofluorocarbons
and other ozone-depleting substances.The ban is legally binding in the
developed countries from 1996, with an exception for exports to
developing countries, and is expected to become effective in developing
countries about 2010.Currently production is increasing in developing
countries, and it appears that significant amounts are being smuggled
into developed countries. Other ozone-destroying chemicals are not yet

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should ban or severely restrict the production and use
of environmentally harmful products and substances like heavy
metals and pesticides. At the same time, they should encourage the
development of less damaging alternatives for such materials,
including through positive incentives and financing. They should
also fulfil their obligations under the Montreal Protocol for
eliminating production and emissions of ozone-depleting gases. 

-     Research and Development

Governments can promote the development of environmentally sound
technologies both through support for research and development in general
combined with environmental protection measures, and through support for
research and development specifically aimed at environmentally sound
technologies. Much of the public funding for research and development
related to sustainable production and consumption has been in the energy
sector, but that has been declining in recent years.


The issues addressed in this section are important in themselves and also
serve to support the other issues considered above.

-     Promoting Sustainable Consumption

Consumers International Proposal:
Sustainable consumption means the fulfilment of basic human needs
without undermining the capacity of the environment to fulfil the
needs of present and future generations. Towards this end,
governments should adopt, or encourage the adoption of, policies
that meet the needs of all citizens, while minimising pollution
and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, land and
freshwater. This can be done through a mix of policies including
regulations, economic and social instruments, sectoral policies
such as land use, transport and housing, and the removal of
subsidies that promote unsustainable patterns of consumption and

-     Indicators for sustainable consumption 

The development and strengthening of consumer protection guidelines for
sustainable consumption require continuing efforts to monitor the
sustainability of consumption and production patterns and to project
future trends.  To do that, governments, research institutes and other
organizations must have data on consumption and production and on their
environmental impacts. The United Nations, at the request of the
Commission for Sustainable Development, has been developing a
comprehensive set of indicators of sustainable development, including
indicators of sustainable production and consumption, in cooperation with
other international and national organizations.  These sets of indicators
are intended for use by governments in developing national efforts to
monitor changing production and consumption patterns and evaluate the
effectiveness of policies to promote sustainable consumption.

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should introduce natural resource accounting as a way
of providing a more accurate feedback on the impact of consumption
and production patterns and of the policies aimed at reducing the
pressures on the environment. They should also develop comparable
indicators and methodologies for measuring progress towards
sustainable consumption, including the efficiency, effectiveness
and impacts of the measures taken. 

-     Appropriate pricing and Economic Instruments  

Pricing which better reflects the environmental cost of products and
services can encourage sustainable consumption. An important measure for
promoting appropriate pricing is the  elimination of subsidies that
encourage unsustainable production and consumption .

Economic instruments are already being implemented to a significant
extent in developed countries. The OECD has catalogued over 200 such
measures, classified as charges on emissions, charges on products,
deposit refunds, tradeable permits and enforcement incentives. It is
expected that economic instruments for sustainable consumption will be
further extended in the future. 

Among developing countries, there has been little use of economic
instruments with the exception of  some countries in East Asia. Thailand
has been studying the introduction of pollution taxes, Korea has a fairly
extensive deposit refund system, Indonesia has instituted a forestry
deposit fund, and Singapore is uses auctionable permits for ozone
depleting substances. Pollution control agreements are in use in
Indonesia to clean up 20 heavily polluted rivers. Malaysia uses tax
incentives to discourage the use of unleaded fuel, encourage the use of
catalytic converters, encourage the treatment and disposal of toxic and
other hazardous waste and encourage the importation and use of pollution
control equipment. 24/

Consumers International Proposal:
Pricing products and services in a way that takes full account of
their environmental cost would redirect consumption in a more
sustainable direction. National authorities should endeavour to
promote the internalisation of environmental costs and the use of
economic instruments, taking into account that the -polluter pays■
principle and the full cost for resources principle (also known as
the "user pays" principle).  

-     Increased emphasis on services 

The service sector accounts for an increasing proportion of GDP in many
countries, and that share is expected to increase. A shift from
consumption of products to consumption of services which provide the same
function may be more sustainable. Examples might include the use of
public transport instead of private vehicles, or on-line information
services instead of printed texts. This could have the effect of
generating a more efficient use of energy and materials, and reducing the
flow of materials through the production cycle, leading to lower levels
of pollution and waste.

Consumers International Proposal:
In order to change consumption patterns, consumers require the
provision of services and social infrastructure that achieve the
same ends by less environmentally damaging means. The switch from
paper to electronic mail, from cars to public transport or from
buying goods to hiring them are prime examples. Governments should
examine the potential for transforming consumption patterns
through meeting needs in new ways, for example by using services
instead of products, and take appropriate action.  

-     Improving Energy Efficiency 

Worldwide, fossil fuels contribute about 85 per cent of world commercial
energy supplies and 97 per cent of fuel used in transportation,
contributing to local air pollution and global warming.  Government
subsidies for energy prices worldwide are approximately $200 billion per
year.  Most of the energy consumption today takes place in the developed
countries, but most future growth is projected to occur in the developing

Moving towards a more sustainable world energy and transportation economy
will require major changes in policies, which will yield results only
over several decades because of the size and importance of the
transportation sector.  Currently, Governments in developed countries
spend over 50 per cent of their $8 billion-a-year energy research budgets
on nuclear programmes, while renewable energy sources get less than 10
per cent.

The third Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997,
agreed that the developed countries would reduce CO2 and other greenhouse
gas emissions by about 5% with respect to 1990 levels by 2012.  Non-
legally-binding targets for developed countries were set in the 1992
UNFCC, but of those countries are not expected to meet the targets. 
Developing countries are not required to reduce emissions, but are
expected to monitor them.

Reducing the threat of global warming in the long-term will require a
combination of increased energy efficiency of current consumer goods and
production processes, shifting to more energy efficient ways of meeting
consumer needs, and shifting to non-fossil-fuel sources of energy.

Consumers International Proposals:
Governments should promote the conservation and efficient use of
energy as well as the transition to non-fossil energy sources.
They should also fulfil their commitments under the Climate
Convention. Special attention must be given to restraining
transportation demand through policies that, among other things,
reduce the need for the displacement of people and goods,
discourage the use of cars in favour of public transport and
result in cleaner and more energy efficient vehicles. Measures for
reducing air pollution, including from vehicles emissions, are
also called for, Governments, at least from OECD countries, should
cooperate in areas such as the development of agreed standards for
air quality, motor vehicle emissions and fuel economy. 

Governments should intensify efforts to reduce the energy and
material intensities of production and consumption, pollution and
waste through promoting energy conservation and efficiency; the
environmentally sound and sustainable use of renewable resources;
increased waste recovery; the reuse, recycling of products and
materials and technological dissemination, innovation and

-     Sustainable Agriculture

Agricultural chemicals, if not carefully used, pose a variety of threats
to health and the environment.  Most pesticides and herbicides are toxic
to humans and other species in addition to the target species. 
Agricultural workers are particularly threatened by such toxic materials,
but the general public is also threatened by residues in food and by
contamination of water supplies.  A variety of techniques, such as
integrated pest management, are available or under development to reduce
dependence on toxic chemical pesticides and herbicides without reducing

Continuing expansion of agricultural land into forest areas and the
reliance of commercial agriculture on a small range of plant varieties
are reducing biological diversity.

There is a growing range of genetic engineering technologies that can
make crops and livestock more productive, resistant to disease and with
characteristics more attractive to consumers.  There is concern, however,
that these technologies pose dangers, which may not be understood, to
humans and animals.

Consumers International Proposal:
Governments should promote sustainable agricultural practices,
including the conservation of biodiversity, and introduce controls
for ensuring that genetically engineered foods are safe for people
and the environment and are labelled taking consumer concerns into

-     Government Procurement

Governments, including local governments, can promote the development and
production of environmentally sound products by establishing
environmental standards for the goods they purchase. Governments can also
establish recycling programmes and energy and resource saving measures
in their facilities. A number of municipal governments, for example, have
specified low-emission vehicles for their large public transportation

Consumers International Proposal
Governments and international agencies should take the lead in
adopting more sustainable practices, including in their
procurement policies. They should also undertake and promote
research and analysis on consumer behaviour and environmental
damage with the purpose of identifying ways of reducing the
environmental impact of consumption and meeting basic human needs
around the world. 

-     Levels of consumption

Agenda 21 recognizes the problem of "the unsustainable pattern of
consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries",
and "the excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer
segments" of humanity. A shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and
production will require some combination of changes in production
processes, in particular through increasing material and energy
efficiency, and changes in consumption patterns.  

The Special Session of the General Assembly in June 1997 noted that
"there has been progress in material and energy efficiency, particularly
with reference to non-renewable resources", but that "overall trends
remain unsustainable". There is a widespread, though not universal,
belief that increasing material and energy efficiency in production
processes can contribute to sustainability but will not be sufficient as
it is likely to be offset by increasing volumes of consumption.  Changes
in consumption as well as changes in production will therefore be

Debates in the United Nations have generally been based on the belief
that some consumption patterns are sustainable while others are not.  The
focus of the debate has therefore been on how to promote a shift from
unsustainable to sustainable patterns, and the United Nations has not
called for a reduction in consumption levels in general.  There have been
proposals for government measures to reduce the consumption of certain
materials, for example through carbon taxes to reduce consumption of
fossil fuels, but generally with the idea that production and consumption
of other items, such as energy from renewable sources, would be
encouraged and increased.

Consumers International Proposal
Measures that reduce the environmental impact of consumption will
not be enough to compensate for the increase in consumption
required in developing countries. Governments, especially from
developed countries, should therefore introduce measures aimed at
reducing consumption levels.

Governments should work together on changing consumption patterns
at the global level. In doing so, they must be guided by the
principle of the equitable sharing among the world population of
environmental resources and the environment■s capacity to absorb


Through the development, transfer and dissemination of innovative 
technologies and practices that  permit the efficient use of  resources,
it may be possible to mitigate some of the harmful effects of human
activity on the environment. International co-operation is essential so
that all countries develop in an economically, socially and ecologically
sustainable manner, and to ensure that countries do not perpetually lag
behind in the adoption of innovations. 

There is a need to adopt specific measures for international co-
operation, including exchange of information on national consumer
policies and measures, joint use of  testing facilities and procedures,
cooperative education and training, and sharing information on harmful

International co-operation is also necessary to ensure that consumer
protection measures do not constitute undue barriers to trade.

National measures to change production and consumption patterns and
promote sustainability, such as environmental taxes and regulations, may
affect international competitiveness and trade.  International co-
operation is essential to prevent countries from competing for investment
and trade on the basis of weak environmental protection standards.
Voluntary standards are also likely to be more effective if they are
developed through consultations at the international level.

Lack of development is a significant cause of environmental damage,
especially on the local level, and economic differences among countries
are an obstacle to international cooperation in environmental protection. 
International co-operation, including development assistance, technical
cooperation, international agreements, and trade and investment, is an
essential element in global environmental protection. A wide variety of
United Nations agencies and other international and regional
organizations are working on various aspects of international co-
operation for sustainable development, including poverty eradication.

Consumers International Proposals:
Governments should cooperate in the vital task of eradicating
poverty as an indispensable requirement of sustainable
consumption. Developed nations should support the shift to
sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the
developing countries through financial assistance, "green"
technologies and better access to markets. 

-     Transfer of technology  

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit agreed that governments and international
organizations should promote the transfer to developing countries of
environmentally sound technologies.  The 1997 General Assembly review of
the implementation of Agenda 21 concluded, however, that "technology
transfer and technology-related investment from public and private
sources, which are particularly important to developing countries, have
not been realized as outlined in Agenda 21".  The General Assembly
therefore called on the international community to promote, facilitate
and finance access to and transfer of environmentally sound technologies
and the corresponding know-how, to developing countries, on favorable
terms, including concessional and preferential terms, taking into account
the need to protect intellectual property rights.

Consumers International Proposal:
Developed country governments should promote the transfer of
environmental technologies to developing countries. To avoid the
establishment of a new technological dependence, developed
countries should also support local research and development into
technologies that are appropriate to the cultural and economic
condition of each country.


1/   "Sustainable Consumption: Changing Lifestyles", Address to the IOCU World
Congress, Joke Waller-Hunter, 1994.

2/  ECOSOC, Consumer Protection, Report of the Secretary General, E/1995/70.

3/  United Nations, Guidelines for Consumer Protection, New York, 1986.

4/  United Nations, Guidelines for Consumer Protection, New York, 1986.

5/  ECOSOC, Resolution 1995/53, Consumer Protection.

6/  ECOSOC, Consumer Protection, Report of the Secretary-General, E/1997/61.

7/  These Member States include: Norway, Colombia, Ecuador, the Phillippines,
Australia, the Netherlands, India, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, South Africa,
United Kingdom, Costa Rica and Canada.

8/  ECOSOC, Consumer Protection, Report of the Secretary-General, E/1997/61.

9/  United Nations, Consolidated List of Products Whose Consumption and/or
Sale Have Been Banned or Withdrawn, Severely Restricted or Not Approved by
Governments, 1994.

10/  Africa Conference on Consumer Protection, Harare, Zimbabwe, 28 April-2
May 1996, Draft Report.

11/  OECD, "Consumer Policy During the Past Ten Years; Main Developments and
Prospects: Report by the Committee on Consumer Policy, 1983. 

12/ Africa Conference on Consumer Protection, Harare, Zimbabwe, 28 April-2 May
1996, Draft Report.

13/ Africa Conference on Consumer Protection, Harare, Zimbabwe, 28 April-2 May
1996, Draft Report.

14/ Consumers International, "Central America: Legal and Organizational
Progress", Consumidores y Desarrollo, No. 5, 1997.

15/  Consumers International, "Legislation and Education" Consumidores y
Desarrollo, No. 5 1997.

16/ Consumers International, Consumidores y Desarrollo, No. 5 1997.

17/ Nick Robins and Sarah Roberts, Unlocking Trade Opportunities: Case Studies
of Export Success from Developing Countries, IIED, 1997.

18/  ECOSOC, Consumer Protection, Report of the Secretary-General, E/1997/61.

19/ "Sustainable Consumption: Changing Lifestyles", Address to the IOCU World
Congress, Joke Waller-Hunter, 1994.

20/ Daniel Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society, 1958.

21/ The website may be found at http://iisd.ca/susprod.

22/ Draft Report of the Africa Conference on Consumer Protection, Harare,
Zimbabwe, 1996. 

23/ Consumer Unity and Trust Society, "Sustained Advertising Promoting
Unsustainable Consumption", No.2, 1996.

24/ "Sustainable Consumption: Changing Lifestyles", Address to the IOCU World
Congress, Joke Waller-Hunter, 1994.

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Date last posted: 8 December 1999 15:15:30
Comments and suggestions: DESA/DSD