Several years ago, I was lucky enough to watch the ‘showstopper’ moment of the wildebeest migration: the crossing of the Mara river from Tanzania to Kenya.
One morning, we set up shop next to the river on the Kenyan side and spent the next three hours waiting for one brave wildebeest to take the plunge – literally. We watched several animals repeatedly scamper up and down the steep riverbank, poke their hooves in the water, spook, and scare the entire herd away; meanwhile, in the middle of the river, a couple of crocodiles sunned themselves on some emergent rocks.
Finally, like it was just sitting down for lunch, one wildebeest decided to flop into the water. There went the neighbourhood: the rest of the herd couldn’t follow fast enough. When the day ended, the crocodiles were still sunning themselves, and we were watching the rear ends of thousands of wildebeest ambling off into the Serengeti sunset.
For far too long, we’ve been thinking about sustainability like it has a herd mentality: that if a few trailblazing citizens go out ahead, others will follow, and we’ll create a chain reaction of green lifestyle choices that will add up to the scale we need. But sadly, we’re starting to realize that conscious consumerism is mostly ineffective. Responsible purchasing is a drop in the ocean of worldwide consumption, and not nearly enough to send the needed market signals.
What we need is to change the entire consumption market, and to do so, we need collective action, led by governments willing to step up and take the first plunge.
Some governments have made progress: many EU countries are sourcing only 100% certified palm oil for public procurement, while Norway has banned public procurement of palm oil-based biofuel. And, piggybacking on international momentum leading up to the Paris climate negotiations, many companies signed the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) in 2014, pledging to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020.
But these are still not enough. Sustainable public procurement is based on a model of small-scale improvements, and NYDF targets are likely to be missed. Meanwhile, most production and consumption is still unsustainable. The question becomes how to turn them sustainable, and do so quickly.
Again, we return to government. On one end, there are efforts to change the economic incentives of consumption through a variety of policy measures. Often, the nations that have led the way are those that understand the financial costs of losing forests, both locally (less rainfall or more soil erosion, ironically harming farming itself) and globally (increased emissions that worsen climate change).
On the other end are multilateral efforts to create landscapes that conserve forests and produce economically and ecologically sustainable commodities. These have allowed companies like Marks and Spencer and Unilever to commit to preferential sourcing from these landscapes.
There’s a caveat, however: public funding is slow and nowhere near enough, and private investment is critical. But again, government creates an enabling environment: policies for sustainable landscapes, financing packages for public-private partnerships, incentives and a level playing field for sustainable products. With 58% of global GDP driven by consumption, we won’t reach the needed level of change absent these large-scale incentives.
Is there a role for consumers? Absolutely. Governments are not just slow, but often limit themselves to oiling the chain on an old, rusty bicycle when really the entire bicycle needs to be replaced. Here’s where consumers can act – not just to make small, individual changes, but to push both the public and private sectors further.
The ‘sustainability of the future’ will be carried out by citizens and business, but led by governments. Just like that first wildebeest, it is the government that must lead – and when they do, the rest know that it is safe to follow.