Economic and Planned Obstacles to SDG 12
By Ana Lipton, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellows
Sustainable Consumption and Production
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 aims to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by creating sustainable consumption and production: “By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse.” Goal 12's purpose is to create a more equitable and sustainable society through waste minimization by reducing consumerism and increasing product life spans to lessen the need for replacement goods.
A critical factor in achieving this goal is technological innovation. Progress in technology has contributed to increased product lifespan; for example, modern LED lightbulbs can last over ten years (or 50,000 hours) without needing replacement. In contrast, an incandescent lightbulb averages 750–2,000 hours. Calculating the number of hours achievable with the higher 2,000 figure still equates to only 4% of hours of use than a standard LED bulb. What, then, is keeping us from switching to more durable products? If we can both benefit economically and environmentally from less waste, why are we not on track to achieve Goal 12 by 2030?
Simply put, frequently replaceable objects generate more profit over the long run. Let’s stick with the lightbulb example: the average cost of an LED lightbulb is $5.00. In comparison, the average price of an incandescent lightbulb is $1.00. There is a 500 percent mark-up on the product’s upfront cost. But a lightbulb isn’t a self-sufficient object — it requires electricity to fulfill its purpose. The average cost of electricity at 0.10/ kilowatt-hour (KWh) for an LED bulb is $21.25; for an incandescent bulb, it’s $150. The KWh describes how much electricity the specific type of lightbulb needs. An LED bulb requires 212.5 kWh of electricity to last 25,000 hours, whereas an incandescent bulb would need 1500 KWh to last for the same amount of time. While the initial cost of an incandescent bulb is significantly lower, buyers end up paying almost a 700 percent higher cost in its use than an LED bulb.
Other products frequently follow the same logic. Popular author Sir Terry Pratchett used the example of work boots to explain the same concept of the lightbulbs. He explained that a man who makes $38 a month is only able to afford the immediate cost of average boots — in his example they are $10. This man would then would have to buy new boots to replace them with equally average boots every season or so. However, he stipulated that a wealthier man could afford above-average boots that cost $50 and that these would last for years, needing no replacement, saving the wealthier man more money. So whether it is a bulb or a boot, structures in place favor those who can afford to pay a higher upfront cost for a better quality item. This, unfortunately, creates a cycle where those who do not have the means to afford quality products are forced to spend more money long-term. Maintenance costs prevent consumers from saving for a higher quality product when needed the next time, especially when “next time” approaches much more rapidly with a lower quality product.
SDG 12 is ambitious in its measurements of success and especially its time frame. Target 12.3 had an original deadline in 2020 to “achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle per agreed international frameworks.” Moreover, it aimed to “significantly reduce [the] release [of chemicals and wastes] to air, water, and soil to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.” Of course, no one at the time could have predicted the current Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent increase in consumption, especially of single-use disposable goods. However, regardless of pandemics plaguing the world, production pre-Covid was also significant, especially in the US.
As mentioned earlier, SDG 12 aims to achieve social and environmental equity by reducing the number of goods purchased in order to prevent them from becoming waste. To minimize waste, people have two options: purchasing fewer goods overall to limit their waste before the product life-cycle begins or increasing the number of times goods are used to diminish waste production in the long term. Some goods are required to retain a healthy quality of life (i.e., medical equipment, hygienic products, water filters, etc.), making the latter more applicable.
Increasing usage time essentially tackles issues surrounding consumerism, which has been on the rise in the US since the 1940s (resulting from increased production during WW2). This was roughly when the term “planned obsolescence” was first coined by Bernard London in his 1932 essay Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. The word“planned” implies an intentional dedication of time and resources to achieve the ultimate goal, in this case, ‘obsolescence,’ or expiration. So, planned obsolescence is the act of deliberate creation of an end date for products. It asserts that the level of consumerism currently present did not happen by accident.
In material terms, this theory asserts: A company will produce a good that is designed and constructed to be replaced within a certain time frame. Consider objects that become unusable due to the fault of a single piece, where companies do not offer replacement parts or repairs.
If this sounds familiar, chances are you may have at one point been the owner of an Apple product. In 2018, Apple was under investigation by French prosecutors for shortening the lifespan of their products because, in 2015, France adopted a law that made planned obsolescence illegal. During the investigation, Apple admitted to releasing a software update that would slow down older models around the same time a new model was being released. In February 2020, France’s Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) fined Apple 27 million USD.
In addition to the lifespan of a product, the difference between iterations of similar products is also an aspect of planned obsolescence. Most electronics do not have replaceable parts, so if one element is no longer satisfactory, people are required to buy an entirely new device. For example, if you go to your mobile carrier and ask about what phone you should get, a significant factor, both in price and usability, is the device’s storage amount. Previously, this was negated by being able to purchase additional external storage in addition to the base product. iPhones, for example, are limited to the built in storage they are bought with — if a person buys a 16 gigabyte phone, there’s no way to have that same device support more than 16gb, despite there being 32 gb and 64 gb options also available for immediate purchase. Similarly, Pascal Durand (Greens-EFA, European Parliament) has gone on record saying,
“We must reinstate the reparability of all products put on the market. We have to make sure that batteries are no longer glued into a product, but are screwed in so that we do not have to throw away a phone when the battery breaks down.”
Planned obsolescence is not the only strategy used to limit product lifespan — perceived obsolescence is also at work.
Perceived obsolescence refers to products that we view as outdated despite being functional. Upon the introduction of a newer model of a product, societal pressures begin to push for getting on the “latest” trend. As a result of the media (social and other), studies show that millennials tie a significant amount of self-value to conspicuous consumption. Suppose the approval of people on the internet isn’t your cup of tea. Still, a mix of perceived and planned obsolesce could create other pressures, like software updates with limited functional capabilities on older models, which might corner you into a new purchase. In short, through this phenomenon of planned and perceived obsolescence, we find ourselves stuck in a consumption-driven economy.
Creating waste is a universal issue because it is virtually impossible to live without some sort of carbon footprint. Humans, and other biotic organisms, are built to be a part of the carbon cycle. But, to be part of a cycle, there must be a balance; producing more CO2 that plants can process creates an overflow problem. Sites like the Amazon rainforest, where two billion tons of carbon dioxide are processed, are known as carbon sinks. However, despite their enormous size, carbon sinks have limits. If we continue to increase our carbon input and other GreenHouse Gasses (GHGs), the proverbial sink will overflow. This is why sustainability efforts must focus on addressing excessive consumption and waste creation.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines most trash, not including things disposed of during industrial processes, as municipal solid waste (MSW). MSW can range from kitchen appliances to the plastic packaging around a toothbrush. Below is the EPA 2018 breakdown:
Now, let’s take a look at the United States. The US plays a critical role in limiting excessive consumption globally. In 2019, data modeling company Verisk Maplecroft found the US to be the largest consumer and waste producer in the world. The same study also showed the US to be lagging behind other similarly developed countries in recycling.
As with most environmental issues linked to climate change, younger generations will be more significantly affected by the consequences of waste production than older generations. Therefore, the responsibility to take action against climate change is shifted from the perpetrators and falls squarely on current youth and future generations to solve the resulting crises. This is problematic because younger generations are less likely to be insignificant positions of power due to inexperience; in addition, the UN World Youth Report reports that marginalized younger generations do not always have the privilege of volunteering their time to a cause.
Simon Kuznets, an economist and statistician who tied economic variables to environmental outcomes, predicted this with his curve hypothesis — he suggested that as an economy develops, the environment deteriorates. This pattern of deterioration continues until a turning point when technology, government regulation, or other outside factors decrease the negative environmental impact that correlates with economic growth.
Realistically more factors contribute to environmental degradation. Logistical population curves account for those factors by taking into consideration the finite availability of materials and space. The planet’s limit is reached as the population grows exponentially until a certain point, as shown on the curve. At that inflection point, the growth rate decreases due to a lack of available resources, as time goes on, causing the consequences to fall onto younger generations. The curve below is therefore more relevant because it takes into account the extraneous variables that are present.
In all of these models, the critical point is the inflection; at what point do we as humans transition our overall impact from hurting to helping? All of these models demonstrate one thing — changes to consumer habits and good standards need to be timely. The exact timeline is debated, but scientists agree that there will be a point-of-no-return after which — no matter what we do — it will be impossible to return the environment to its previous state, a form of environmental extinction. This is precisely why the ambitious aims of Goal 12 are a necessity, not a naive ambition. The longer a resolution is prolonged, the worse the problem will get. Doing less now and allowing the degradation to persist means having to do more in the future, condemning future generations to shoulder an unsolvable burden.