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How the EU Could Help UK Consumers Get to Grips With Resource Use

07/03/2014 15:52 GMT | Updated 07/05/2014 10:59 BST

A survey for the National Geographic magazine showed that westerners consume a lot, but are less likely to feel that they should consume less to improve the environment for future generations. The opposite is true in emerging economies.

However, in the UK we are more likely than some other western countries, such as Germany, Australia and Japan, to think we should consume less. This is perhaps because UK consumers have shown time and time again that they do in fact want more sustainable products that have a smaller impact on the environment. The issue is that they just don't have the time to search for them. So what could be done?

The European Commission now has the opportunity to turn this around and help us all live within the boundaries of our planet. This spring the EU executive body will publish a package on resource efficiency and the circular economy, a scenario whereby we keep using stuff for as long as possible instead of making a product and then rejecting it as waste shortly after. This is a fantastic chance for the EU to show that it is serious about getting us to change the way we live.

Consumers can only go so far alone. Most people are busy juggling families and jobs and don't have time to investigate which products on the supermarket shelves are the most sustainable. Businesses have to take the lead and they need guidance and laws so that they have a clear framework in which to operate and so that all companies are working with the same rules. This is only fair for firms and for consumers. The Commission, with the support of EU member states, can make this happen. They must prove that they can respond firmly to their citizens' expectations.

The best way for the Commission to drive a more sustainable way of living and more efficient ways of doing business across Europe is to include the 'four footprints' in its resource efficiency package. This would generate the information needed for EU governments to set targets and a clear path showing how a brake can be put on our overconsumption.

The four footprints that should be included are: a material footprint to calculate the tonnage of material used by European countries; a carbon footprint to measure climate change gases released; a water footprint to assess the volume of water used; and a land footprint to calculate the area of land used by the EU anywhere in the world.

Influential voices from the world of politics and business agree that using these footsteps can help countries and companies to be more efficient. This is a vital need in these times of economic and environmental challenges and creates a win-win situation for the planet, people and profit.

Friends of the Earth highlighted this opportunity at a conference we held recently in Brussels, which brought together experts from industry, NGOs and government bodies to discuss these issues. Unilever, whose brands grace all our households, is one company that has measured its water and carbon footprints, and believes deeply in the advantages of these tools. Resource efficiency can drive new ways of thinking and doing business, insisted Florence Coulamy, the company's sustainability manager.

In its efforts to decouple growth and its environmental footprint, Unilever has reduced its environmental impact at a factory level, cutting greenhouse gases from energy by one-third and reducing non-hazardous manufacturing waste by 50%. And half of Unilever's 250 factories now have zero-waste-to-land-fill, helping the company to slash costs by about €300 million since 2008.

This is all good news, but even more ambitious approaches to resource efficiency, whereby all four footprints are taken into consideration, need to be rolled out across the EU.

Jo Leinen, a former chair of the European Parliament's environment committee and a prominent figure in the Brussels policymaking scene, agrees. "The EU is very resource poor and it is in its own interest to be a leader," he told the conference. According to him, clear targets for resource efficiency would be good for the environment and for industry, signposting companies where to invest in the next ten years.

The Commission is slowly engaging with all four footprints. It announced this month that in June it will launch a public consultation on land as a resource, the results of which will inform a communication on land resources that the EU executive plans to publish in 2015. This is likely to include a set of indicators on how to measure land degradation and use, and is a step in the right direction. But we cannot wait another two years. We only have one planet and need to act now.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik has emphasised the need for much greater resource efficiency and the benefits it will bring throughout his five-year mandate. In his final few months in Brussels, he must turn fine words into lasting concrete actions by setting strict targets for the use of water, carbon, land and materials. As he was recognised by the UN as a 'champion of the earth' for his work on resource-efficiency, this would allow him to leave a lasting legacy for the planet.