Rethinking ‘reduce’

To lighten our global footprint to within ecological boundaries, we need to embrace transformative approaches to reducing our collective impact. Although many solutions focus on reuse, recycling and disposal of materials and energy, there is less about how to prevent or avoid consumption and waste in the first place. Let’s catalyze creative strategies for ‘rethinking reduce’ including redefining progress, transforming how we use our time, and reframing ‘reducing’ as ‘healing’ and ‘maturing’.

Absolutely upstream

The classic waste hierarchy (the 3Rs of reduce-reuse-recycle) is aligned with sustainable living by focusing on tackling wasteful consumption in our daily lives. The ‘reduce’ part of the 3Rs – waste prevention and avoidance – centres on reducing waste upstream, before it is even produced.

However, there is an opportunity to develop a separate categorization for ‘reduce’ solutions to include innovative actions on, for example, sufficiency (deciding how much is enough) and redesign (making low impact the default). We can move away from defining this as a waste problem to one of enabling meaningful lives.

A fresh approach to ‘reduce’ solutions is not about creating a new hierarchy with materials reduction as the ultimate goal. In some cases, adding more material (such as more insulation in a wall) can lead to needed reductions in other areas (such as lower energy consumption). Instead, it is about revealing the rich array of solutions that support reducing global footprints within ecological limits. This includes interventions aimed at shifting time use patterns to transform daily social practices in ways that are crucial for sustainable living.

 A critical aspect of sustainable living is reducing, on a global scale, the quantity of materials and energy consumed to within the limits of ecological systems.

The conventional response to the dilemma of continuous growth in resource use is ‘decoupling’. However, it’s vital to distinguish between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ decoupling. In relative decoupling, the ecological intensity of resource use declines relative to economic output, but it doesn’t necessarily decline overall. To reduce material and energy use to within ecological limits, we focus on actions that support ‘absolute’ decoupling, in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms.

The Beacon is led by One Earth and Hot or Cool, with generous support from the KR Foundation