Mission possible

Posted: 27 July 2001

If the world's poor were to consume in the manner of the rich, they would have to increase their consumption of fish and energy by a factor of 7 and 17 respectively, and their acquisition of cars by over a hundred-fold. But the poor cannot hope to emulate the rich; if they did, we would need at least two additional planet Earths.

This is the starting point of Mission Possible, a 10-minute film which explores the issue of sustainable consumption, and which was premiered at the United Nations 1999 Commission for Sustainable Development meeting in New York. Mission Possible seeks to entertain, as well as enlighten, and uses a combination of graphics, drama, interviews and traditional documentary story-telling to get its point across.

The film begins with a sequence which shows the imbalance in our consumption patterns, between the North and South, between rich and poor, and the way in which even the most commonplace goods have an 'ecological footprint'. For example, to get the gold to make the ring on your finger over three tons of rock and earth had to be gouged out of the ground.

But is this just a rich world problem? No, suggests Dianne Dillon Ridgley of the Women and Environment Development Organisation. By dint of their rapidly growing populations, many of the world's poorer countries are consuming resources at levels which are also having a negative impact on the environment.

The first story in the film explores the way in which the 17,000 families who belong to the Mumbai Grahak Panchayat food distribution system in India's financial capital are consuming fewer resources by acting collectively, and are at the same time saving themselves money. By bypassing middlemen and buying in bulk, they save up to 20 per cent on the food bills. By using recyclable cloth bags, the system is helping to save up to half a million plastic bags a year, and bulk delivery helps cut down on transport and save fuel.

Community schemes like this one can make a real difference, but as Theo Anderson of Friends of the Earth, Ghana, says, we desperately need industry to take a lead in reducing the amount we - and they - consume. Claud Fussler of Dow Chemicals suggests that serious progress is already being made in many sectors of industry, and this leads us into the second story: how Interface carpet factory in Shelf, Yorkshire, has revolutionised the way in which it uses raw materials. Besides using energy from renewable sources and kitting out its factories with the latest and most intelligent energy efficient devices, Interface recycles virtually all its waste, from discarded yarn to dust, and it encourages its employees to think about eco-efficiency by awarding annual bonuses for environmental achievement.

However, as long as government policies favour over-consumption, and as long as perverse subsidies encourage industry and individuals to behave in an environmentally irresponsible manner, there is little hope of us creating a world in which sustainable consumption becomes a reality. The film concludes with a brief survey of government initiatives - from as far afield as Thailand and Brazil - which are helping to make us more efficient and benign consumers.

Creating more sustainable patterns of consumption is possible - as the title suggests - but if this is to happen governments, businesses, communities and individuals will all have to play a part.

Mission Possible was made by North South Productions, in association with the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Norwegian Department of Environment. VHS copies are available for £10 plus p&p from:

IIED
3 Endsleigh Street
London WC1H 0DD
UK
Tel: +44 (0)207 388 2117
Fax: +44 (0)207 388 2826
Email: