Sustainable Future?

Sir Martin Rees says we have only a 50% chance of seeing out this century as a human species. Can we alter the balance of probabilities by adopting sensible development policies and actions for sustainability?

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Sustainable Consumption and Production


1. Sustainable Consumption and Production

1. It is axiomatic that human populations cannot continue to expand indefinitely expecting to live at the levels of consumption and production practiced by developed countries. Already humans take up 83% of the Earth’s land surface[1] to live on, farm, mine, or fish ( We also use 98% of the land suitable for farming rice, wheat, or corn. In addition, we have appropriated 40% of the net primary productivity, 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf, and 60% of freshwater runoff (Sanderson et. al. 2002). Clearly doubling human population density is not possible without increased efficiency in resource use, radically improved technology, reduced consumption or reduced space for all other living things, or some combination of these factors.

2. The 1997 Asia and Pacific Conference on Consumers in the Global Age called for amendment to the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection and a model law on consumer protection for Asia-Pacific. The UN Guidelines, originally drafted in 1985, were subsequently revised in 1999 based on a discussion paper largely prepared by Consumers International ( titled the UN Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption: New Guidelines for the Global Consumer (1998). Sustainable consumption is defined as how goods and services required to meet basic needs and to improve the quality of life can be selected in ways that reduce the burden on the Earth’s carrying capacity. Sustainable production focuses on improving environmental performance in key economic sectors. The two concepts are inextricably linked. The Guidelines baldly state that, “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, particularly in industrialized countries, are the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment”.[2] Section G on Promotion of Sustainable Consumption has 15 clauses but no specific targets are mentioned. Specific roles envisaged for business are (i) promoting sustainable consumption through the design, production, and distribution of goods and services; (ii) partnership with governments and civil society to promote sustainable consumption through a mix of policies that could include regulations, economic and social instruments, sectoral policies, information provision, removal of subsidies, and promotion of best practices; and (iii) partnership with governments and other organizations to encourage transformation of unsustainable consumption patterns by developing new environmentally sound goods and services.

3. By 2002, the lack of specificity in the Guidelines, as well as insufficient progress in meeting the goals of sustainable consumption and production, resulted in one of the key initiatives of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI)—development of a ten-year framework of programs for sustainable consumption and production (JPOI, para. 15). The purpose is ”to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production to promote social and economic development within the carrying capacity of ecosystems by addressing and, where appropriate, de-linking economic growth and environmental degradation through improving efficiency and sustainability in the use of resources and production processes and reducing resource degradation, pollution, and waste.”

4. Regional meetings were held to further this process, including two meetings in Asia and the Pacific.[3] Preliminary ideas on a regional strategy for the Asia-Pacific region were developed, with indications of needs and priorities. One proposal was to establish a "help center" with the support of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) regional offices. At the Yogyakarta meeting (21-23 May 2003), a potential role for international organizations was identified as follows. “International organizations such as UNEP, UNIDO, the Asian Productivity Organisation (APO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and national productivity organizations are requested to strengthen existing institutions such as National Cleaner Production Centers to enhance their service packages in order to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, for example by including product-related issues, inter alia, life-cycle analysis, product and service design, and marketing.” Subsequently, an International Expert Meeting on the 10-Year Framework of Programs for Sustainable Consumption and Production was held in Marrakech, Morocco, from 16 to 19 June 2003. These 115 experts from 59 countries and 9 international organizations noted that the challenge is to move from “the more generic to the specific and focus on implementation.” Good advice indeed!

5. The regional expert meeting in Yogyakarta called on industry to (i) carry out self-assessments; (ii) provide credible self-declarations on their products and services; (iii) develop and follow codes of conducts; (iv) assist SMEs in their supply chain to develop sustainable consumption and production practices; (v) adopt sustainable procurement practices; and (vi) increase research and development on consumer behavior, sustainable production processes, products, and services. UNEP was encouraged to explore the possibility of an International Declaration on Sustainable Production and Consumption. So far the development of the ten-year framework has not extended beyond a series of international meetings, but the admonition to move from the more generic to the specific and focus on implementation cannot be neglected for much longer.

6. Amory and Hunter Lovins have used the term “natural capitalism” to indicate a shift in thinking from destruction of the planet’s most important capital, nature, to working within its complex system of ecosystem services, already delivered for free and worth more than the total global economy ( To achieve sustainable production and consumption they propose four principles: (i) increase resource productivity (by at least a factor of 10); (ii) eliminate the concept of waste by redesigning an economy based on closing the loops of material flows; (iii) shift from processing materials and making things to creating services and flows; and (iv) rehabilitate the planet by investing in natural capital. Others have referred to concepts of cradle-to-cradle industries, rather than the linear cradle-to-grave approaches, dematerialization, and industrial ecology.

7. The Netherlands is probably the most advanced country in relation to sustainable consumption (Social and Economic Council 2003). Since the first National Environmental Policy Plan in 1989, the Netherlands government has set overall sustainability targets and entered into covenants with sectoral stakeholders to achieve those targets, leaving the choice of means to those who are believed to know best. Setting targets for consumption and entering into covenants with consumers has not been as simple as for other sectors, like the chemical industry. Interestingly, the Social and Economic Council (SEC) of the Netherlands distinguishes between the role of a citizen (concerned about problems facing society) and the role of the consumer (concentrating on self-interest), although they are embodied in the one person. The consumer is part of the production chain (purchase, use, and disposal), whereas society sets standards and licenses the production chain to operate under certain conditions. Sustainable consumption, therefore, requires a consonance between social and individual behaviors. Unfortunately, humans are quite capable of holding social views that are completely different from their private behavior. To deal with such social dilemmas SEC recommends a mixture of carrots, sticks, and sermons (i.e., making clear the alternative sustainable behavior, minimizing or compensating for personal sacrifices, and internalizing the desired behavior so that deviations are seen as anti-social aberrations and invoke public censure). Product information and ready availability of sustainable alternatives are essential in bringing about such behavioral changes.

8. Sustainable consumption and production (or natural capitalism) are not just theoretical concepts and many best practice cases have been documented, many of them suggested by workers, ranging from halving the energy content of products, to making buildings more energy efficient, or to reducing alcohol consumption by drivers. The examples are fascinating glimpses of what is possible, yet sustainable consumption and production is still a long way from being mainstream. The key question for corporations and consumers alike is whether to seek these solutions voluntarily, because they add to both profitability and a sustainable society, or to wait until they become mandatory. Given the history of this issue in the UN system since 1972, an International Declaration on Sustainable Production and Consumption almost seems inevitable and that would, in turn, lead to national commitments and legislation. Transitional policies being adopted in the European Union will be a useful guide to future global top down actions.

2. Consumer Preferences as a Pressure Point

9. In 2004, Redefining Progress released its latest version of Ecological Footprints of Nations (Venetoulis et. al. 2004). An ecological footprint is “a tool for measuring and analyzing human natural resource consumption and waste output within the context of nature’s renewable and regenerative capacity”. The basic premise is that if we remove more from nature than can be sustained indefinitely then we are on an unsustainable track as a species. The 2004 report found that the per capita ecological footprint continued its twenty-year adverse trend and for the first time the USA became the nation with the largest per capita ecological footprint, at 9.5 hectares (ha) per person. In contrast, the Asia-Pacific region stands at about 3.0 ha per person, but with 60% of the planet’s population has the largest aggregate footprint. Within the region, among the developing countries, Mongolia has the highest per capita footprint (5.68 ha), while Bangladesh has the lowest (0.50 ha).

10. Do consumers actually worry about the ecological footprint of their consumption? Strangely missing from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is any mention of consumption patterns, despite the evidence that overconsumption is causing a global epidemic of obesity in developed countries and destroying the global environment. Moreover, most developing countries are striving to emulate similar consumption and lifestyle behaviors as their measure of “development. It is notable that JPOI merely proposes a decade long study of consumption and production. Contrast this meek response to some dire warnings about the continuing global appetite for overconsumption.

11. “Consumption in many rich nations continues to grow, much of it reasonably classed as "overconsumption" in comparison to the material goods available to the average human being. The most serious population growth in the world is occurring in the United States, the third most populous nation in the world. The USA still has a natural increase of 0.6 percent, a total fertility rate of 2.0, and a growth rate (thanks largely to immigration) of over one percent. Most importantly, it has an extremely high level of consumption per person—on the order of ten to thirty times that of people in developing nations…. The spread of American consumerism is a global threat, and the prospect of ever greater disparities in living standards not only between nations but within nations, bodes ill for the environment” (Ehrlich 1998).

12. “If just the present world population of 5.8 billion people were to live at current North American ecological standards (say 4.5 ha/person), a reasonable first approximation of the total productive land requirement would be 26 billion ha (assuming present technology). However, there are only just over 13 billion ha of land on Earth, of which only 8.8 billion ha are ecologically productive cropland, pasture, or forest (1.5 ha/person). In short, we would need an additional two planet Earths to accommodate the increased ecological load of people alive today. If the population were to stabilize at between 10 and 11 billion sometime in the next century, five additional Earths would be needed, all else being equal—and this just to maintain the present rate of ecological decline” (Rees 1996). Note that in the eight years since this report, the US ecological footprint has doubled, so perhaps we would need 10 additional Earths.

13. Why do we consume more than we need for a simple, moderate, healthy lifestyle? Thorstein Veblen (1902) published his Theory of the Leisure Class and firmly established the notion of conspicuous consumption, combining status and utilitarian functions. That means that we often consume to impress others, to win an attractive mate, or to demonstrate our position in the social pecking order. The standard micro-economist’s stance is that we consume only for the personal utility or satisfaction that consumption brings. Thus, we are forever condemned to consume until the marginal utility of consumption is exceeded by the marginal cost of purchases. However, if that standard utility function is conditioned by where we see our rightful position in the pecking order or by how others might view the external manifestations of our consumption, then we may be perpetually disappointed instead of satisfied. If our consumption of brand name goods does not deliver either the satisfaction of the functional nature of the goods or the social positioning that the advertising industry promised, we do not take the obvious lesson and stop consuming but often redouble our efforts. If there is always some group of wealthier people in our reference group just ahead of us, consumption can become a deeply unsatisfying race to keep up.

14. If it is true that we consume mainly to gain utility from the functional properties of goods, why do we accept planned obsolescence and purchase products that break down the day after the warranty expires? The rapid growth in leasing arrangements in developed countries indicates that we have accepted that our car or computer will soon become obsolete and there is little point in owning something that will soon need to be replaced. What is the difference between modern consumer goods and antiques that increase in value as they age? Did previous generations who built things to last have a better understanding of consumption than modern throwaway societies?

15. Gradually modern consumers and their advocacy groups are learning the power that they hold over producers. The power of “rejectionist” consumers is exemplified by the inability of producers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to obtain even the slightest market opening in Europe. How can we account for such consumer advocates and activists, who are clearly operating in a noneconomic manner? Are they simply neo-Luddites, opposed to technological advancement, or is there a deeper set of values at stake? A set of values that can resist the blandishments of social marketing techniques and the seductive power of advertising could be a lodestone sought by those few, hardy souls promoting a simpler, less consumption-oriented lifestyle (Elgin 1998).

16. While rejecting the consumption of GMOs, the same European activists are often happy to jump into a gas-guzzling car to get to the next protest location. Is the set of values that lauds nature and things au natural, the same set of values that will convince a consumer to pay a premium price for a product that costs more but protects the environment? The people at the Fair Trade Federation (, an organization that promotes premium prices and a more equitable and sustainable system of production for farmers, believe so. Their 2003 annual report indicated that fair trade sales in 2002 increased by 37% to $251 million.

17. However, the truth is that we know very little about this class of consumers. They are of marginal interest to advertisers because they seem to be a small underclass. They also tend not to purchase on a whim or in response to a sales pitch, but conduct thorough research prior to purchase. Nevertheless, if it is in the interests of the planet to model future consumption patterns on these ideological followers of Thoreau, then we should learn more about the under-consuming class and their motivations.

18. If consumption and its twin, production, are at the root of our global environmental problems, then a twin campaign to reduce overconsumption in developed countries and to constrain the growth of consumption in developing countries is urgently needed. The current middle class (i.e., where consumption begins to shift from basic needs to discretionary expenditure at $5,000 per capita per annum) in Asia is estimated at 226 million (excluding Japan) and could reach 541 million by 2010. Young singles (25 to 34 years old) will account for almost half of the discretionary spending, about $308 billion worth of purchasing power (Hedrick-Wong 2004). In the PRC, about 100 million young people will have been born into one-child families, a cohort particularly susceptible to the seductions of western style consumerism (this group is often referred to as the little emperors).

19. Neither appeal to guilt complexes nor sin taxes seem to be effective in limiting consumption in developed countries, so they will not work with the nouveau riche middle class in developing countries either. Feeling guilty may just make the consumer more miserable, leading to increased consumption (just one more chocolate). Sin taxes may be good for raising revenue but they are blunt weapons for reducing consumption as incomes rise. A better approach may be to understand the motivations, upbringing, and formative values of the under-consuming class. Based on such understanding, social marketing skills and educational campaigns can be employed to expand the influence of this class.

20. In developing countries, it seems hypocritical to suggest that consumers should not aspire to a western mass consumption lifestyle. If Americans and Europeans consumed a fraction of their current consumption volume, then there would be room for increased consumption in developing countries without increasing total environmental loads. However, it is probably more prudent to follow the middle path advocated by Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, of a sufficiency economy (see below). In addition, opportunities to leapfrog over obsolete technologies can also avoid some of the most environmentally destructive paths that developed countries have followed for the past two centuries.

21. In addition to consuming less, consumers can be very effective in boycotting companies in breach of social norms. In January 2001, seven Ajinomoto (makers of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a ubiquitous taste enhancer in Asia) officials were detained, its East Java factory and warehouses sealed, products withdrawn from supermarket shelves, and the share price fell by over 14%. The Indonesia Council of Ulemas (Muslim religious leaders) had delivered a fatwa (ruling) that Ajinomoto was not halal (and therefore forbidden to be eaten by Muslims). The reason stemmed from a revelation that Ajinomoto used an enzyme from bacteria grown on pork extracts to speed up the chemical reactions involved in producing MSG. Ajinimoto quickly moved to assure Indonesian consumers that it no longer used this method to produce its enzymes, but only after considerable financial damage.

22. The Ethical Consumer ( maintains a list of current boycotts in the United Kingdom. In August 2004, the list included Adidas (for using kangaroo skin to make football boots), airlines (for transporting primates for research), American Home Products (for the use of horses in producing drugs), Bayer (for genetically modified crops), Budweiser beer (as Anheuscher Busch uses orcas as performing animals in Seaworld), Coca Cola (for repression of trade unions in Columbia), Daimler Chrysler (for reparations for slave labor in World War 2), Esso (for lack of action on climate change), KFC (for cruelty to chickens), plus many others. In fact, the list contained 50 separate boycott campaigns.

23. Consumers are also stockholders and can wield their power in the boardroom as well as in the supermarket shelves. Stockholder advocacy, often at the time of company annual meetings, can significantly influence internal policy. Perhaps one of the most significant groups espousing the power of stockholder advocacy is the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (, a coalition of 275 Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations with a similar mission of promoting corporate responsibility—and over $100 billion in assets. For example, member groups posted stockholder resolutions in 2003-2004 on greenhouse gas emissions, genetically modified organisms, sustainability reporting, drilling in the arctic wildlife refuge, the impact of the Bhopal isocyanate incident, release of dioxins to the environment, and renewable energy.

3. Traditional Values as a Basis For Change

The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian (1906-1945)

24. Asia-Pacific will likely become the future growth engine of the world. It is home to the world's largest number of people living in poverty. And it has the planet’s most precious biodiversity in the rainforests, coral reefs, etc. All this suggests that the battle for global sustainable development must be fought out in Asia-Pacific (if we can make it work here, then the rest of the world may be saved). However, achieving sustainable consumption and production is not just a technical problem, it is also a mental and social problem. Anti-globalization protesters claim that the region’s traditional values and culture have been steadily and perniciously perverted by Western, capitalist, market-first views based on mass production and consumption, supported by and constantly driven by advertising that tells us we are not white enough, not clean enough, not cool enough.

25. Miller (1996) states, “A new set of values based on equality, freedom, community, and environmental responsibility is vital to the reduction of human suffering and ecological deterioration. Self interest, as the primary motivator in humanity, defines the relationship between work attitudes and economic and environmental choices. A sustainable society requires a complete reformation of humanity's economic value system.” In this view, the values set underpinning capitalism has brought us to a fundamental choice between continuing the quest for economic growth and survival of the planet. “The questions before us call for lifting up neglected portions of our moral tradition to give them more attention and more force in our individual lives and in our societies” (Miller op. cit., emphasis added).

26. Are there neglected portions of the moral traditions in Asia and the Pacific? Is a renaissance of traditional Asian-Pacific values possible? Values that promote sustainable development might include (i) self-reliance over dependency (e.g., juche in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, motanai in Japan, Gandhi-ism in India, King Bhumipol’s sufficiency economy or middle way in Thailand, the gross national happiness index in Bhutan), (ii) quality over quantity, (iii) durability over obsolescence, (iv) natural over artificial, (v) organic over chemical, and (vi) personal service over machines. If these neglected values could be resurrected, the vision and challenge would then become how to create an Asia-Pacific economy that trades with the rest of the world by promoting this renaissance of traditional values.

27. The immediate challenge before us, however, is to investigate the values that have been lost and if revived would help the world move towards sustainability. We need to uncover values that our grandmothers would have accepted as natural and values that our mothers saw slip away from consciousness as they were bombarded with advertising. We need to resurrect values that the current generation doesn't know about because they are lost in the archives of history. But even if we could uncover such values, have cultures changed too much in the process of modernization for them to have any resonance with younger generations? If we accept that those traditional values were also once incorporated into company values, as new companies are being formed in the region, are those values still a force for change, or have their powers to motivate behavioral change been totally eroded?

28. When we talk about Asian-Pacific culture, what lies at the heart of it? Humans, physically similar to those alive today, settled the region at least 40,000 years ago (Diamond). Over that period, myriad differences have arisen in response to survival needs and the environmental challenges faced, from the alpine regions of the Himalayas to the coral atolls of the Pacific islands. Values have also changed with the varying rates of diffusion of technologies. Some of these communal differences became rules embodied in formal religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Shinto-ism), or informal “religions” such as animism, while others remained as folklore or indigenous knowledge. In each of these social traditions, there are common elements of respect for nature, modest lifestyles, and caring for neighbors. Some of these elements, combined with modern technology, could become the basis of a moral renaissance that would underpin the paradigm shift towards sustainability. Sadly, much of that traditional knowledge has already been lost.

29. It is unhelpful that much of the research into “Asian values” dredges up negative connotations of authoritarianism and reduced personal liberty. Ouyang (u/d) stated, “Asian traditions place more emphasis on the group than the individual, consider order to be more useful than argument, rank authority above liberty, appreciate solidarity more than freedom, value discipline more than disorder, and prefer stability to what they perceive as decadence in the individualistic West.” It is unlikely, however, that such values, to the extent that they still exist, could contribute much to sustainability, unless some benevolent dictator issued a series of edicts to make sustainable development happen. The development challenges being faced by the region are unlikely to be solved in an authoritarian regime because experimentation and innovation in a more open and democratic society is more likely to lead to sustainability solutions.

30. The most comprehensive time series surveys of global values (World Values Surveys), now covering about 70 countries representing 80 percent of the world’s population, draw some interesting conclusions (Inglehart 2000, Inglehart and Norris 2003):
(a) Above a certain level (about where the Republic of Korea is today) increased national average per capita income does not result in increased happiness;
(b)` At about this inflection point, advanced industrial societies see a gradual but fundamental intergenerational shift in values, and begin to emphasize quality of life and environmental protection issues;
(c) Fundamental changes in societal values only take place as younger birth cohorts conditioned by changes in physical and economic security at a formative age replace older cohorts;
(d) In most developed economies, among the postwar generation post-materialists tend to outnumber materialists, and a new set of postmodern values have been transforming social, political, economic, and sexual norms (emphasizing self-expression, tolerance of other groups, declining acceptance of rigid religious norms, and interest in exotic things and cultural diversity);
(e) There is no “clash of civilizations” in relation to democratic values, although there are dividing lines between countries in social mores (such as attitudes to gender equality, homosexuality etc. – “eros rather than demos”);
(f) Although most countries pay lip service to democracy, values such as self-expression, gender equality, freedom of speech, and interpersonal trust—which underpin democracy—are not universally shared values; and
(g) Convergence around some set of postmodern values is unlikely, as “history matters” and traditional values will continue to influence cultures as they modernize.

31. Inglehart and Baker (2000) used the same time series data to demonstrate that developing/developed country differences in worldview can be organized on two dimensions, traditional vs. secular-rational, and survival vs. self-expression values. “Traditional” societies emphasize family values, deference to authority, and social conformity. The “survival” values tap into economic and physical security, threats from outsiders and nonconformists, male dominance, and materialism. A cultural map using these two dimensions suggests that future globalization of values is likely to be more Nordic than American (a nation that retains a surprisingly strong traditional bent). The shift from survival to self-expression value sets is highly correlated with the rise of a service economy but is not correlated with the relative size of the industrial sector. Welzel et. al. (u/d) went a step further and showed that economic development leads to changes in cultural values, which are, in turn, conducive to democracy. The common factor underpinning economic development, cultural change, and democracy is “human choice”. However, human choice builds on preexisting differences between societies, so convergence towards a universal culture is unlikely. Above all, “a society’s heritage makes a big difference” (Inglehart and Baker op. cit.). Traditional value systems demonstrate remarkable durability and resilience and changes in values, as economies grow, are path-dependent.

32. The research based on the World Values Surveys suggests that developing countries should simply accelerate economic growth to quickly reach the inflection point of about $10,000 to $15,000 per capita GNP, at which point the younger generation will (re)discover an interest in environmental quality. As we have seen for technology, leapfrogging over outmoded technologies may be a viable strategy for sustainable development, but does the corollary hold for cultural values? Is it possible to leapfrog over a materialist phase as people get richer and move directly into a post-materialist phase? Do traditional values in Asia and the Pacific have a sufficiently strong hold or influence on new generations to provide the “frog” over which they can leap?

33. One of the most traditional societies in Asia-Pacific is the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Until 1961, Bhutan was a self-contained, traditional rural society. There were no roads and no industries. In the past 40 years, modernization has proceeded very quickly, but always with a view to ensuring that traditional values did not disappear along with the emergence of new roads, water supply and sanitation, schools and hospitals, and a few industries. Bhutan has tried to maintain harmony between economic forces, cultural tradition, and the environment. Gross national happiness was seen as being more important than gross national product (Government of Bhutan 2000). Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th Century, an animistic religion known as Bon was practiced, and Bon ceremonies are still held today. Bhutan is also one of the world’s 10 most important biodiversity hotspots and more than 26% of the land area is protected. Almost 70% of the land is under forest cover and government policy is to retain at least 60% in perpetuity. With the benefit of being able to observe other nations further advanced in “development,” Bhutan has identified four essential ingredients of national happiness: economic development, environmental preservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance.

34. “Bhutan seeks to establish a happy society, where people are safe, where everyone is guaranteed a decent livelihood, and where people enjoy universal access to good education and health care. It is a society where there is no pollution or violation of the environment, where there is no aggression and war, where inequalities do not exist, and where cultural values get strengthened every day. A happy society is not a fatalistic society but is built on hope and aspirations. It is also a more equal and compassionate society, where sharing and contentment come out of a positive sense of community feeling. A happy society is one where people enjoy freedoms, where there is no oppression, where art, music, dance, drama, and culture flourish” (Government of Bhutan 2000).

35. It is still too early to tell if Bhutan can maintain harmony between economic modernization and gross national happiness, without losing its valued cultural traditions along the way. But what about a nation that is already at the inflection point, the Republic of Korea? In traditional Korean society, the peasant class followed an historical transition from shamanism, to Buddhism, and Taoism, retaining elements of all (Sang-Bok Han). Confucianism was adopted by the ruling literary class and was used to justify control over the commoners. Authoritarianism, collective will, importance of connections, and close personal relationships were the resultant societal values. Formalistic ritualism, aspirations for education, and conformity to group norms and sanctions are dominant values. Sang-Bok Han notes, “Korea has made outstanding progress in the economic realm, creating an interesting case of an industrial capitalist society still compounded by all sorts of traditional traits, which in general are considered inimical or at most not terribly conducive to such a development.”

36. Young Hak Song (u/d) believes that these traditional values in the Republic of Korea actually explain the success of Korean industry and that the core Neo-Confucian values of harmony, unity, and vertical relationships strongly influence Korean firms. Company songs and mottos reflect these values, essentially extending filial piety to the larger corporate “family.” Many of the top Korean firms make extensive effort to instill company beliefs and values into new employees, so that they will associate themselves with value systems imposed by the top management. The values most commonly stressed in the company motto or songs are harmony, unity, sincerity, diligence, creativity, and development.

37. While Song (op. cit.) believes that traditional values are likely to strengthen in Korean firms, Wang Xinsheng sees modernization as a long process of destroying traditional values in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Attempts to adopt Western values, technologies, and organizational and economic systems in the PRC from the middle of the 19th Century, did not build on or transform the Neo-Confucian values base. Instead, there was an attempt to destroy these traditional values, best exemplified by the May 4th Movement in 1919 and the ultimate adoption of Marxist ideology. Nevertheless, the several attempts at westernization have frequently collided with an abiding attachment to Confucianism, the monarchy, and hierarchical organization. Xisheng (op. cit.) claims that adoption of Marxism simultaneously met a psychological need to learn from the West, while desperately wanting to oppose the West. He goes on to say, “Only by integrating the cream of our national civilization with that of the Western civilization will the old ideal of modernizing China come true.”

38. If some fusion of Western and Asian values needs to be sought as a “remedy” to unconstrained capitalism, what might that combination look like? Might that combination benefit both rich and poor country alike? Surveys show that “people in the West have got no happier in the last 50 years. They have become much richer, they work much less, they have longer holidays, they travel more, they live longer, and they are healthier. But they are no happier” (Layard 2003). In Japan, there has been no change in average levels of happiness, despite a six-fold increase in per capita income since 1950. Paradoxically, rich people are on average happier than poor people in the same society. So as the poor people improve their financial position, why aren’t they happier? Layard (op. cit.) believes there are two factors at work: habituation and rivalry. As our living standards improve, at first we love it, then we become used to it—and would be most dissatisfied if we had to go back to our previous condition. Unfortunately, we most easily get used to material possessions rather than more abstract achievements (like more time spent with the family). In controlled tests, the majority of people would prefer to be poorer, provided their relative position to others in their reference group improved. Here lies the dilemma of any attempt to move away from conspicuous consumption (Veblen op. cit.) and the frequent cause of rivalry within the household or organization.

39. Throughout history there have been several notable individuals who called on a resurgence of traditional values to underpin independence or other political struggles. One of the most famous was Mahatma Gandhi in India. To break England’s hold on its colony, Gandhi urged rejection of the symbols of westernization, spinning cotton for his own clothes and famously leading a nonviolent protest march to the sea to gather salt. Gandhi called on the Indian people to renounce material things and to lift themselves above materialism to concentrate on greater ideals. However, Gandhi’s call for noncooperation, self-reliance, and nonmaterial desires was designed to break the economic stranglehold of the British empire, not to bring about a sustainable society in harmony with nature.

40. To find a firm values connection with nature, perhaps one has to go back to shamanism and animism, which predate formal religions, but still have residual impacts (such as Thai spirit houses, various annual rituals, and some core beliefs). Shamanism and animism stemmed from a belief that all things, animate and inanimate, were infused with the spark of life (“semangat” in Malay). However, many of the animistic rituals have lost their original meaning and are now undertaken because they are part of a community’s annual calendar—useful for maintaining community solidarity, but useless for changing individual behavior.

41. In the final analysis, about the best we can hope for by calling on traditional values is to follow the line of Thailand’s King Bhumipol, who has called for a “sufficiency” economy (subsequently incorporated in the 9th National Economic and Social Development Plan 2002-2006).[4] By a sufficiency economy, the highly respected monarch implies the middle path of Buddhism:

“Sufficiency economy” is a philosophy that stresses the middle path as the overriding principle for appropriate conduct and way of life of the entire populace. It applies to conduct and way of life at individual, family, and community levels. At the national level, the philosophy is consistent with a balanced development strategy that would reduce the vulnerability of the nation to shocks and excesses that may arise as a result of globalization. “Sufficiency” means moderation and due consideration in all modes of conduct, and incorporates the need for sufficient protection from internal and external shocks. To achieve this, the prudent application of knowledge is essential. In particular, great care is needed in the application of theories and technical know-how and in planning and implementation. At the same time, it is essential to strengthen the moral fiber of the nation so that everyone, particularly public officials, academics, business people, and financiers adhere first and foremost to the principles of honesty and integrity. A balanced approach combining patience, perseverance, diligence, wisdom, and prudence is indispensable to cope appropriately with critical challenges arising from extensive and rapid socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural change occurring as a result of globalization.” (NESDB 2000)

42. It appears that this central feature of Thailand’s national development plan is similar to the philosophy of a small but growing global community following the principles of voluntary simplicity (Elgin 1998). “To live sustainably, we must live efficiently—not misdirecting or squandering the Earth's precious resources. To live efficiently, we must live peacefully for military expenditures represent an enormous diversion of resources from meeting basic human needs. To live peacefully, we must live with a reasonable degree of equity or fairness for it is unrealistic to think that, in a communications-rich world, a billion or more persons will accept living in absolute poverty while another billion live in conspicuous excess. Only with greater fairness in the consumption of the world's resources can we live peacefully, and thereby live sustainably, as a human family. Without a revolution in fairness, the world will find itself in chronic conflict with wars over dwindling resources and this, in turn, will make it impossible to achieve the level of cooperation necessary to solve problems such as pollution and population.”

43. To oversimplify, there appears to be no substantive body of hidden or neglected values in Asia and the Pacific that will alter the trajectory of increased materialism and consumption as those economies grow. Appeals to moral values may affect a minority of people who voluntarily opt for a simpler lifestyle, with a minimal footprint on the planet’s ecology. They are unlikely to forego the opportunity to purchase their first television or car, unless better more cost-effective technological options are available to satisfy the desire for leisure and mobility. As the global environment continues to deteriorate and it can be demonstrated that human consumption and production patterns are ultimate causes, the per capita GDP inflection point for a change in attitudes towards sustainability may slip from around $15,000 to a lower number. Continued education, awareness raising and the global information revolution may accelerate the pace of intergenerational change. However, the aging baby boomers who buy million-dollar recreation vehicles or three-meter-tall super pickup trucks are likely to be aped by the nouveau riche in the developing world, at least for the foreseeable future.

4. Prognosis

44. The need for sustainable consumption and production appears to be indisputable. Although it is theoretically possible for producers to move towards sustainability, while consumers continue to consume unsustainably, it is more likely that production and consumption will need to move in tandem. Top-down pressure, such as that orchestrated by the United Nations in its proposed ten-year framework of programs for sustainable consumption and production, appears unlikely to be effective unless there is a massive change in the collective mind-set of consumers, particularly the emerging middle class in developing countries.

45. Consumers are clearly capable of changing their minds. This is the underlying basis of the multibillion advertising industry. Once they change their minds and act collectively, through revealed preferences or boycotts, then they are a powerful force to change production patterns. However, it appears that materialist values persist in developing economies, in part reflecting traditional values that were important for survival. Satisfaction of basic needs predominate until GNP per capita reaches about $5,000 per annum. Beyond that level, there is a high propensity for Western-style consumerism. Once per capita GNP reaches about $15,000 per annum, intergenerational cohorts that have become habituated to physical and mental security since early childhood may begin to turn their minds to quality of life issues, including environmental sustainability.

46. One possibility is that changes in attitude towards sustainable consumption and production will accelerate as the global environment continues to decline and that the human-induced nature of that decline becomes less disputable. If that acceleration happens, then consumer values in developing countries may leapfrog over the materialist phase into post-materialism. However, if environmental change continues a slow but steady decline, and governments remain in denial, then the “boiling frog” principle is more likely than the “leaping frog.”


Diamond, Jared. 2003. Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions? Available:

Ehrlich, Paul R. 1998, 25 Sept. Recent Developments in Environmental Sciences. Available:

Elgin, Duane. 1998. Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. Perennial Currents.

Han, Sang-Bok. The Role of Endogenous Culture in Socio-Economic Development of Korea. Available:

Hedrick-Wong, Yuwa. 20 July 2004. Asia’s Twin Revolution. Asian Wall Street Journal.

Inglehart, Ronald and Wayne E. Baker. 2000. Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values. Available:

Inglehart, Ronald and Pippa Norris. 2003. The True Clash of Civilizations. Available:

Layard, Richard. 2003. Income and Happiness: Rethinking Economic Policy. Available:

Layard, Richard. 2003. What Would Make a Happier Society? Available:

Layard. Richard. 2003. Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue? Available:

Lovins, Hunter L. and Amory B. Lovins. Natural Capitalism: Path to Sustainability? Available:

Miller, Amata. 1996. Work in a Sustainable Society: Values for New Economic Relationships. Available:

Ouyang, Kang. Behind the Varying Understandings of Asian Values. Available:

Rees, William. 1996. Revisiting Carrying Capacity: Area-Based Indicators of Sustainability. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2.

Sanderson, E. W., M. Jaiteh, M.A. Levy, K.H. Redford, A.V. Wannebo and G. Woolmer. 2002. The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild. Available:

Social and Economic Council. 2003. Abstract: Towards a Sustainable Economy. Hague: Sociaal-Economische Raad. Available:

Song, Young-Hack and Christopher B. Meek. 1998. The Impact of Culture on the Management Values and Beliefs of Korean Firms. Available:

Tinsulanonda, Prem. 2001, 15 Mar. Sufficiency Economy: His Majesty’s Philosophy for Development – Keynote Speech at the Leadership Forum 2001. Available:

Veblen, Thorstein. 1902. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: MacMillan.

Venetoulis, Jason, Dahlia Chazan, and Christopher Gaudet; 2004, Mar. Ecological Footprint of Nations. Oakland: Redefining Progress. Available:

Welzel, Christian, Ronald Inglehart, and Hans Dieter Klingeman. 2002. The Theory of Human Development: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Available:

World Summit on Sustainable Development Plan of Implementation. Available:

Xinsheng, Wang. Chapter III: Overcoming Nihilism and the Modernization of China. Available:

[1] Human population density greater than 1 person per square kilometer, within 15 km of a road or major river, occupied by urban or agricultural land uses, within 2 km of a settlement or a railway, and/or producing enough light to be visible regularly to a satellite at night.
[2] The usual escape hatch of the “special situation and needs of developing countries” is standard, as in most UN documents.
[3] The Asia-Pacific meetings were held in Indonesia, May 2003, and Republic of Korea, November 2003.
[4] The national development strategies include a vision for "… a strong and balanced society … using the 'sufficient economy' philosophy … leading development to the Middle Path … aiming towards sustainable development …" (NESDB 2000)