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Institutionalising Sustainable Consumption

Consumer policy has traditionally concentrated on the economic interests of consumers: price, quality, choice and redress. Consumer protection legislation is directed to combating market irregularities and empowering consumers to make choices and take legal action. It also protects the health and safety of consumers (e.g. from food additives, leaded paint) and ensures access to goods and services. Consumer policy agencies may want to take a more direct role in promoting more sustainable lifestyles in the environmental and social sense. In 1999, the UN General Assembly revised the United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection to include sustainable consumption in the Objectives and General Principles as well as in a specific new section. The UN Guidelines now encompass conducting sustainable consumption research, promoting recycling and sustainable government practices, encouraging life cycle thinking and eco-products, and developing standards for regulating and verifying environmental claims. The new section on “Promotion of Sustainable Consumption” (Section G) encourages governments “to create or strengthen effective regulatory mechanisms for the protection of consumers, including aspects of sustainable consumption”. Although many OECD countries have not incorporated the UN language in their consumer protection laws and guidelines, most have legislation on unfair or deceptive commercial practices, which can cover false marketing claims related to the environmental and other characteristics of products (UNEP/CI, 2006). A few countries have legal frameworks for their national sustainable development strategies (Korea) which apply to sustainable consumption. Others have legal provisions relating to the right to environmental information (France, Norway and Switzerland). Japan enacted the Fundamental Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society, which underpins its sustainable consumption and recycling initiatives.