Vital Signs 2002 Press Release

Vital Signs 2002 Press Release

CHOOSING A BETTER FUTURE:Consumers Pressure Businesses to Go Green

Well-informed consumers are emerging as a new force in the global struggle to create an environmentally sustainable world, reports a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental and social policy research organization. Aided by labeling programs, standards, and an expanding group of social and environmental certification organizations, the world’s consumers are "voting with their wallets" for products and services that promote sustainable development.

"Some free market advocates claim that the market automatically gives people all the choices they want and all the information they need," says Michael Renner, Worldwatch Senior Researcher and Project Director for Vital Signs 2002. "But what consumers are demonstrating is that they want more environmentally acceptable choices than the market has been delivering, and more trustworthy information about the social and environmental impact of the products they might buy."

Vital Signs 2002—produced with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the W. Alton Jones Foundation—documents many instances where consumers, often aided by information-brokering organizations, are seeking out goods and services that promote sustainable development:

  • The Mexico-based Forest Stewardship Council has certified over 25 million hectares of commercial forest in 54 countries as meeting social and environmental standards for sustainable forestry, more than double the area in 1998 (p. 70).
  • Worldwide, buyers of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) have eliminated the need for nearly 40 medium-sized, coal-fired power plants (p. 46).
  • At the seafood counter, consumers can now find rock lobster, cockles, hoki, mackerel, herring, and salmon that carry the Marine Stewardship Council’s logo as having been harvested under environmentally responsible management (pp. 124-125).
  • Thai consumers have used information from an appliance-labeling program to drive the market share of energy efficient, single-door refrigerators from 12 percent in 1996 to 96 percent in 1998 (p. 132).
  • In 21 European countries, beachgoers follow the ratings of the European Blue Flag campaign to find some 2,750 beaches and marinas with high environmental standards and sanitary and safe facilities (pp. 124-125).
  • Coffee drinkers in the US and Canada can ask for their coffee to be brewed from beans carrying the Bird Friendly seal of approval from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. This program certifies that the beans meet standards for shade farming and organic production (pp. 124-125).

"Changing consumption and production patterns will be high on the agenda of this year's World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)," says Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of UNEP. "Consumers will not save the world by themselves, but they are welcome allies in a struggle where we are going to need all the help we can get."

Vital Signs 2002 highlights several sectors where consumer pressure could be pivotal in getting industry and regulatory bodies to step up to the plate. The electronics industry in 2001 produced 60 million transistors for every man, woman, and child on Earth. California’s Santa Clara County, the birthplace of the semiconductor industry, now contains more toxic waste sites than any other county in the United States. In 1997, more than 2.9 million tons of e-waste ended up in US landfills, and by 2004, tens of millions of cell phones and an estimated 315 million computers may be headed for our dumps.

"We tend to think of the ‘new economy’ as being cleaner than the ‘smokestack economy,’" Renner says. "But manufacturing semiconductors is chemical-intensive. And the short life-span of these products is creating mountains of electronics waste, poisoning groundwater supplies, and endangering human health. Cell phone and computer users should be demanding that manufacturers take their products back, and design them to be recycled instead of dumped."

The cruise ship industry is another industry ripe for pressure from consumers. The number of people taking a cruise vacation more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, to almost 10 million passengers a year. The industry’s environmental record has been dismal.

Overall, the world’s cruise ships discharge some 33 million tons of raw sewage and garbage into the oceans each year. Cruise ship passengers could use their vacation dollars to favor companies that meet strict environmental standards.

In the transportation arena, diverse efforts are underway to enlarge the realm of choice. In the United States, a single mode of travel, the private car, dominates metropolitan areas. Frustration with the resulting urban sprawl has driven people in hundreds of communities to pass laws intended to address the problem–for example, by investing in public transit or re-zoning to allow homes and stores to be built a walkable distance from each other. And in Europe, there are a growing number of innovative car-sharing organizations that sell hourly car service. Car-sharing has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of vehicles on the road, lower pollution levels, and decrease costs to drivers.

Making the Connections

More facts from Vital Signs 2002

Although each of the 56 items in Vital Signs 2002 was written as a stand-alone piece, many themes cut across the entire book. Here are some examples:

New Economy, Not Clean Economy

  • In 2001, about 520 million people used the Internet, which encompassed 147 million host computers, almost double the number in 1999. And the number of mobile telephone subscribers rose to almost 1 billion in 2001, nearly pulling even with the number of fixed-line connections (pp. 82, 84).
  • A single semiconductor plant may use between 500 and 1,000 different chemicals, making the semiconductor industry one of the most chemically intensive ever known (p.111).
  • A computer monitor contains 1.8 to 3.6 kilograms of lead, a heavy metal that damages the nervous system and poisons blood cell development (pp. 82, 111).
  • In some American businesses, one computer is used per user per year, fueling a growing waste crisis. And at least 315 million computers in the United States are predicted to become obsolete by 2004 (p. 111).
  • 300–500 million metric tons of hazardous waste were generated worldwide each year during the past decade, amounting roughly to 50-83 kilograms per person in 1999 alone (p. 112).
  • Discarded cell phones are a growing contributor to electronic waste, as consumers seek the latest technology and manufacturers introduce disposable models (p. 84).

Unhealthy Diets

The Thirst For Sugar

  • The United States, with less than 5 percent of world population, is the largest carbonated soft drink consumer, accounting for one third of total soda consumption in 1999. China, with about 20 percent of world’s population, is the fourth largest consumer of soda and is growing rapidly (p. 140).
  • Soda consumption contributes to tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, and caffeine dependence. A recent study showed a direct correlation between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity (p. 140).
  • In 2000, the two largest soft drink corporations, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo. spent $4.6 billion worldwide on advertising, a significant portion of which targeted children (p. 141).

Consuming Pesticides

  • In the United States, the share of harvests lost to pests has increased from 30 percent in the early 1940s to 37 percent in the 1990s–despite a 10-fold increase in pesticide use (p. 127).
  • The US constitutes about 40 percent of the world market for household pesticides, with annual sales exceeding $1 billion. China is the second largest market with $580 million in sales (p. 126).
  • The United Kingdom spends roughly $200 million each year to remove pesticides from drinking water, equal to one quarter of what British farmers spend on pesticides themselves each year (p. 127).

Buying Power

Efficient Energy

  • Energy efficiency labeling programs can be found in 43 countries around the globe, a sevenfold increase since 1980. If 20 percent of American consumers were influenced to purchase one of the most efficient refrigerators available, the electricity savings would eliminate the need for more than four large power plants (p. 133).
  • Wind energy remains the world’s fastest-growing energy source. Wind generating capacity reached 24,800 megawatts in 2001, up 37 percent from 18,100 megawatts in 2000 (p. 42).
  • Production of photovoltaic (solar) cells exceeded 390 megawatts in 2001, marking the fourth straight year of growth at or above 30 percent (p. 44).

Driving Farther

  • The European Automobile Manufacturers Association has offered a voluntary commitment to increase auto fuel efficiency standards to 41 miles per gallon (5.7 liters per 100 kilometers) by 2008. In Japan, regulations will likely bring about an improvement to about 35 miles per gallon (6.7 liters per 100 kilometers) for new models by 2010 (p. 74).
  • Currently, the combined fuel economy of new passenger cars and light trucks in the US stands at just 24.7 miles per gallon (9.5 liters per 100 kilometers), the second-worst figure in 20 years (p.74).
  • Car sharing is emerging rapidly in Europe, North America and Asia. Each shared car is estimated to eliminate four cars from the road (p. 151).
  • A lane of light rail can move four to eight times more people per hour than a lane of highway (p. 152).

The Era of Youth

Boom and Bust

  • The largest generation of young people in human history (1.7 billion people aged 10-24) is now reaching reproductive age (p. 88).
  • Half the population of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria is under 25, while over 60 percent of Pakistan and Afghanistan’s populations fall into that category (p. 155).
  • Every day, 30,000 children under the age of 5 die of preventable causes (p. 148).

Hard Lessons

  • More than a quarter of all children in South Asia and 40 percent of all children in Africa did not have access to formal education in 1998 (p. 154).
  • Half of California’s new schoolteachers in 2000 had either no credentials or were inadequately prepared for the subjects they taught (p. 155).
  • Many highly qualified teachers from developing countries are being recruited to fill positions in US and European schools (p. 154).