Along with the global population growth, over-consumption patterns have exacerbated the depletion of our planet’s resources, environmental pollution, and climate change. Humans might consequently reap what they have sown. Recent years have seen the increased efforts worldwide in promoting “Sustainable Consumption” (SC), emphasising the collaborative efforts of governments, businesses and consumers to incorporate the “sustainability” concept into everyday life. This ensures that while basic human needs are met and quality of life is improved, we also endeavour to minimise the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants so as not to jeopardise the needs of our future generations. The COVID-19 outbreak last year led to a global public health crisis and along with it the opportunity to reflect on consumption and production patterns. Hong Kong, as an international city, is a big user among its peers in terms of various kinds of resources. In order to keep up with the international pace of SC development, it is essential for consumers, businesses and the Government to join forces to realise the vision of making Hong Kong a “sustainable” and liveable city.
Promoting sustainable consumption has long been one of the priorities of the Consumer Council. The first SC study report published in 2016 included findings from a SC baseline survey (“baseline survey”) conducted in 2015, which revealed that consumers were fairly concerned and aware about the environmental impact of their consumption behaviour, but did not always act consistently to reflect this concern. After 5 years, the Council has conducted a tracking study entitled “Embracing Sustainable Consumption for a Happy Life ─ A Tracking Study on Consumer Behaviour” (“Study”) to monitor changes in consumers’ attitude and behaviour towards SC, as well as to examine the latest developments of SC locally and overseas, so as to formulate recommendations to stakeholders to foster collaboration among all.
Slight Uptick inSustainable Consumption Index (SCI)
The Study took a mixed-method approach, comprising consumer surveys through telephone and on-street face-to-face interviews with a total of 1,517 respondents aged between 15 and 64, focus group discussions and desk research on relevant experience in 13 jurisdictions. Despite the increased difficulty in conducting street interviews due to the pandemic, the survey was successfully completed with strong support from the respondents.
The SCI is used for tracking the local development and trends on major SC issues, covering 2 major indexes “Consumers’ Awareness and Attitude” and “Consumers’ Behaviour and Readiness” with a total score of 100 in each index.
The Study results indicated that consumers showed progress, albeit marginally, in terms of the 2 major indexes as compared with the baseline survey. The score of “Consumers’ Awareness and Attitude” has increased from 74 in the baseline survey to 77 in the current survey, while “Consumers’ Behaviour and Readiness” has increased from 69 (Consumers’ Behaviour) and 65 (Consumers’ Readiness) in the baseline survey to 71 in the current survey. The 2 major indexes are comprised of 8 sub-indexes, amongst which “Recycling Behaviour” was the only one that stayed at a relatively low score of 63 with no increase. Comparison of the scores of the 2 major indexes reflected that there was still a gap between consumers’ awareness and their behaviour in reality, in particular their participation in recycling. This suggested there was still room for improvement in terms of Hong Kong people’s sustainable consumption behaviour.
The survey results found that 43% of respondents were not familiar with the concept of SC and expressed that they “did not quite understand” or “did not understand at all”, while only 18% reckoned themselves to have “fully understood” or “quite understood” the concept. The remaining 39% rated their understanding of the concept average. In general, consumers were able to associate SC with its various aspects, including “energy conservation”, “waste reduction” and “avoiding pollution in production”. A majority of consumers were also concerned about product information related to SC, such as the pollution caused by the products during their production process or usage, and the lifespan of products. When asked their willingness to pay extra for products or services produced or provided along the principle of SC, a vast majority (87%) of the respondents indicated they were willing to pay an extra 5% or more. However, more than one-third of the respondents perceived the availability of such products on the market to be “not enough” or “not enough at all”. At the same time, close to 50% of the respondents suggested they did not usually purchase such products or services, with “not enough information”, “too expensive” and “not easy to acquire” being the greatest hurdles.
Compared with the baseline survey, there has been an improvement in respondents’ acknowledgement of the benefits of energy conservation and waste separation, with respondents who “agreed” or “strongly agreed” increasing from 72% and 70% in the baseline survey to 85% and 80% in the current study. However, respondents were more hesitant to take further action when such behaviours require a change to their lifestyle or would cause inconvenience, such as recycling outlets not being enough or being too far away.
Concerning Downward Trend in Certain Recycling Behaviour
Of the 6 common recyclables, only around 30% of the respondents would “always” or “usually” recycle metal, glass or small home appliances, whereas about half of the respondents would recycle clothes, paper and plastics. On the other hand, there was an increase in the percentage of respondents who “seldom” or “never” recycled paper (27%) or plastics (32%) compared with the baseline survey (22% and 27% respectively), indicating a worrisome increase in consumers who did not perform paper and plastic recycling. Focus group discussions revealed that consumers lacked confidence in how recyclables were managed after their collection, with some consumers believing that the recyclables may end up in the landfills alongside other garbage, hence wasting their recycling efforts as it did not contribute to saving the environment.
Respondents showed a higher (over 70%) take-up rate of behaviours which were easy to do, could bring tangible benefits such as saving money, or had accessible information. Examples of these behaviours included purchasing appliances with the Grade 1 Energy Label and products with water-efficient claims, giving priority to products with environmental labels, avoiding over-ordering of food, refraining from buying single-use products, and repairing broken domestic appliances, etc. However, only around 60% of the respondents tried eating more vegetables and less meat, or paid attention to return policies when shopping online to avoid wastage of unsuitable products. Besides, less than half of the respondents would choose to borrow seldomly used items, give priority to simple packaged or packaging-free products, use less air conditioners as much as possible, or give priority to local produce. Amongst all, giving priority to organic food was the behaviour least practised (35%) by the respondents.
Nevertheless, there was a growth in percentage of respondents that were willing to commit more to support SC (from 63% in the baseline survey to 68% in the current survey). Respondents indicated they would be willing to commit more if the Government showed greater initiative in promoting SC or if they were provided with more information on how to practise SC.
Drawing on Overseas Experience to Drive SC
Based on various factors, for instance their good performance in sustainability, and social and economic structure, 13 jurisdictions were selected for in-depth desk research with a view to explore valuable references from their experience and practices on driving sustainable consumption. These included Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. The review showed that efforts were made in these jurisdictions in driving SC with the help of technology and innovation and through the carrot and stick approach, which have been summarised as 4 key areas.
Firstly, providing information to safeguard consumers’ right to know and to enable choices. References include guidelines on “Green marketing and the Australian Consumer Law” in Australia, which sets out principles for businesses to consider when practising green marketing; France has policy that prohibits “biodegradable” claims on product labels, and mandates a repairability index as well as the provision of information about the availability of spare parts; South Korea has legislation to punish false eco-labels; Singapore has launched a logo that enables consumers to identify products with a reduced amount of packaging materials.
Secondly, promoting waste reduction and recycling. A majority of the regions in the research had relevant policies, such as deposit refund systems for beverage containers, introduction of waste disposal charges, and initiatives to reduce plastics in supermarkets. Denmark and Japan have even developed mobile apps to encourage consumers to purchase soon-to-expire food and reduce potential food waste, while Switzerland has an interactive map for consumers to locate recycling points. In addition, Vancouver, Canada has banned or will soon impose restrictions on several types of single-use items, such as plastic straws and disposable cups; France prohibits supermarkets from discarding good quality food approaching the “best before” date; Singapore requires regulated businesses to submit annual reports on the types and quantity of packaging materials they put on the market; whereas Taiwan has established a “Waste Disposal Act” which obligates households to separate waste, and has also conducted a trial programme to reward consumers for returning recyclable takeaway food containers.
Thirdly, promoting product repairability and durability to extend product life and reduce waste. For instance, legislations in France restrict the practice of planned obsolescence and extend the duration of the legal warranty for a product; Sweden provides tax deduction for the maintenance of specified products, such as clothes, shoes, bicycles and appliances.
Finally, promoting a sustainable lifestyle. South Korea's Green Credit Card awards consumers eco-money points when they purchase low-carbon and eco-friendly products, use public transport or save on electricity, water and gas utility rates; Taiwan's Green Point App rewards consumers with green points when they purchase green products, take public transport and participate in eco-friendly activities, and the points can be used for redeeming or purchasing green products and services with discounts.
Tripartite Effort to Build aSustainable City
Based on the findings of this Study, policies need to be strengthened to promote behavioural changes of consumers that are in line with their awareness. Otherwise, there is still a long way to go before the vision of building Hong Kong as a sustainable city can be realised. In fact, despite the Government’s and businesses’ proactive initiatives in recent years to promote sustainable consumption, the outcome will be diminished if these efforts are not in tandem with consumers’ expectations, or if consumers have already lost confidence. Therefore, consumers, businesses and the Government must each do their own part and provide mutual support, in order to catch up with the international pace of development in SC and to build a sustainable economy and lifestyle in Hong Kong. In view of this, the Council puts forward the following recommendations for all stakeholders’ consideration.
Enabling Drivers for Behavioural Change of Consumers
- Nurture SC Understanding and Culture through Public Education and Creation of Support Platform
The Council recommends the Government to step up public education, such as to explore strengthening of the current school curriculum, to instil SC values in children from a young age and entice them to incorporate SC into various aspects of daily life. The Government could also develop a single and easily accessible consolidation platform that provides a quick-to-respond mechanism for consumers to enquire about, locate and receive information on SC, such as resources usage, recycling methods, and waste statistics.
- Strengthen Availability and Choice of Productsand Services with Relevant Incentives to Encourage Consumption
The Council recommends modification of the point-saving and redemption of the Government’s existing GREEN$ Electronic Participation Incentive Scheme to attract consumers’ participation. Apart from taking recyclables to the recycling outlets, the scheme could also reward points to consumers who buy sustainable or environmentally friendly products or services. The currently limited gift variety could be extended to include cash or coupon redemption, or allow consumers to enjoy discounts when buying sustainable products.
- Rebuild Recycling Habits by Convenient, Stringent and Transparent Waste Management System
To address the issue of inconvenience for recycling, the Government could substantially expand the recyclables collection network. Besides, the performance of recyclables collection service contractors should be monitored more stringently, so as to ensure the recyclables are collected properly and delivered to downstream recycling facilities, instead of dumping at landfills together with other garbage. Data of the quantity of recyclables collected, recovered and used as secondary raw materials should be properly recorded and disseminated to the public on a regular basis, in order to rebuild their confidence in the recycling management system.
Role and Responsibility of Businesses
- Adopt Sustainable Principles Along the ValueChain, from Production to End-of-life Disposal
Businesses should adopt the concepts of circular economy, optimal use of resources and waste reduction in all production stages and along the value chain. Products and services should be provided at reasonable prices, or even offer incentives to encourage consumers to purchase.
- Provide Accurate Information about theSustainability of Products and Services
The Council recommends businesses to strengthen the transparency of information about the sustainability of products and services. Such information should be clear and accurate. Environmental labels certified and accredited by a credible and authoritative third party are preferred, so as to allow consumers to make informed choices.
- Set Measurable Sustainability Targets and Roadmaps
The Council recommends businesses to review the sustainability status of the current business model, production line and value chain; set sustainability strategy and targets, which should be practical and measurable; conduct training to staff; and disseminate information to the public. At the same time, monitor progress through third party assessment and make necessary corrections; and report progress on a regular basis and explain irregularities.
Directions and Policies of the Government
- Promote Research in Advancing SC-related Pattern
The Council recommends the Government to invest in setting up more different types of funds or expand the existing funding schemes to support research of different nature and scope, such as the pattern of resources usage and waste generation of different community and business activities; sustainability of existing products and services in the local market; innovative technology for producing sustainable products and services; advancing waste management and promoting behavioural change of consumers.
- Establish Long-term and Holistic Policy toFoster Recycling and Sustainable Industry
The Government could establish mechanisms to foster recycling, directing the flow of recyclables from disposal, collection to recovery. Such mechanisms may include rebate systems, recycling mandates, extended Producer Responsibility Schemes, collection and waste-to-resources infrastructure, and even levies or subsidies. The Government may also explore provision of funding to entrepreneurs for introducing, producing or providing sustainable products or services, to promote the development of the industry.
- Introduce Legislation and Enforcement Measures to Achieve Specific SC Goals
The Government could draw on the experience of other regions and consider enacting regulation on environmental labelling to combat green washing and misleading labels; regulate the usage of single-use plastics; mandate a minimum warranty period and “right of repair” for specific products at a reasonable price and for a sufficient period of time.
The Council stresses that, all stakeholders, including consumers, businesses and the Government, should do their part to change their modes of consumption and production in all aspects of life and business activities, in order to collaboratively achieve the goal of making Hong Kong a sustainable city. The Study’s findings point to the fact that in order to drive behavioural change in consumers that is consistent with their SC awareness, there needs to be clear and holistic policies, infrastructure and information. Consumers also need the support and cooperation of all stakeholders so as to transform their consumption attitudes and behaviours, embracing sustainable consumption for a happy life. The Council will strive to continue promoting SC research, education and initiatives, and calls for all stakeholders to join hands in that endeavour in order to propel Hong Kong towards being a more sustainable city. On 24 June, the Council will organise a forum at The Chinese University of Hong Kong to further facilitate discussion and exchange with various stakeholders on the future work of SC.
This project is funded by the Council for Sustainable Development