2C Conference: Reducing our consumption of resources – driving happy sobriety

Posted on 29 May 2019.

Natural resources are now being consumed in greater quantities and faster than the planet can replenish them.

On May 21, 2019, the Veolia Foundation organized its second "2C" conference of the year at La REcyclerie - a third place dedicated to experiments in eco-responsibility. Organized for four years in a row, this annual conference cycle aims to share the circular economy’s main principles and challenges with the general public, and in particular with students. Organized by the CliMates youth network, the conferences bring in different experts depending on the theme. The theme of this evening focused on reducing our consumption of resources, driving happy sobriety. "We need to drastically reduce our consumption," said Dominique Bourg - philosopher, professor and sponsor of the cycle 2C - in a video screened as an introduction.


Humanity’s ecological debt

Why is it so crucial to reduce our consumption levels now? Simply because natural resources are being consumed in greater quantities and faster than the planet can replenish them. Today, the equivalent of 1.7 planets is necessary to satisfy humanity’s needs. If all humanity lived in the same way as people in France do, we would need the resources of three planets! "We are ecologically in debt to the planet," says Amélie Rouvin, Head of Circular Economy at Veolia. In 2019 the day we start living on credit was August 1st, and it gets earlier every year. "The most alarming thing is that the consumption curve is accelerating," adds Amélie Rouvin. To return to the equivalent of one planet, we would have to divide our resource consumption by ten.


Changing the economic paradigm

It is even more problematic because according to France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies the global population will be 10 billion by 2050. It also means the need for raw materials, water, and energy will increase... "In absolute terms, ten billion of us could live on Earth," says Amélie Rouvin. But only provided we change the economic paradigm. In fact, "our current so-called 'linear' economic system - which consists of extracting, producing, consuming and throwing away - is not sustainable and has consequences not only on the section of the world’s population having to deal with water stress but also on the loss of biodiversity". It is therefore urgent for us to completely rethink our way of producing and consuming. "Businesses, public authorities, citizens – all stakeholders have a role to play in activating this transformation towards a circular economy, the ultimate aim of which is to reduce resource consumption," said Amélie Rouvin.


Recycling is not enough

The circular economy is often associated merely with recycling, but in fact it is only one of seven pillars. And what’s more it isn’t the most effective - even if it is imperative. Today recycling often means a loss of value. For example, after a few years a new computer that cost more than 500 euros to buy is worth only 100 euros per metric ton as waste!
This is a huge difference and one of the reasons we need to find ways of preserving the quality of materials when they are recycled.

This is the goal of a partnership between Veolia, the SEB Group, leader in the field of small household appliances, and the non-profit organization Eco-systèmes. The latter collects electrical and electronic waste and transports it to a Veolia plant which is responsible for sorting and recycling. The recovered plastic is then reused by SEB to produce the new irons it sells on the retail market. "You’d think it was a simple and widespread practice but it actually took three years of research and development to achieve a similar quality of recycled material as that of virgin material, thereby meeting SEB’s requirements," says Amélie Rouvin. In addition to this eco-design approach, SEB has also considered offering its consumers a rental offer – thereby selling a service in the form of the use of an appliance rather than the product itself (this is the principle behind the functional economy).

Even though it is essential to think about solutions to recover still unexploited waste (three quarters of the annual 4 billion metric tons of waste generated globally is not recovered), even optimized recycling is not enough on its own to offset the increase in our consumption. And to move towards more sobriety, it is above all necessary to promote repair and reuse. Taking the example of the laptop, by repairing it or selling it second-hand, its life and its value are prolonged and the use of the resources used to make it is optimized.


The concept of "sobriety" makes a timid appearance in public policies

When we talk about the term "sobriety", what are we talking about exactly? A way of life consisting of voluntarily reducing consumption. It first appeared in 2010, during the publication of the essay “Towards happy sobriety” by Pierre Rabhi, the term has since made a timid appearance in public policies, as stated by Marline Weber, project leader at France’s National Institute of Circular Economy. It is for example quoted in the circular economy roadmap presented by France’s Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition on 23 April 2018. At the European level, "energy sobriety" is mentioned in particular in European Union Climate & Energy Package.

This sobriety concerns manufacturers but it is in fact everyone's business. In France, policies that facilitate individual change are moving in this direction, be it:
  • educating and raising public awareness
  • providing infrastructure that promotes the functional economy: car sharing, self-service bicycles, etc.
  • putting in place more incentive measures: for example with the household waste collection incentive fee, the less non-recyclable waste generated, the less tax is paid
  • prohibiting certain practices: for example planned obsolescence - a technique used by manufacturers to deliberately reduce the life of a product and encourage the consumer to buy more – has since 2015 been a crime punishable by two years’ imprisonment in France.


Choosing simplicity: living better with less

To end this conference on happy sobriety, Julien Vidal testified to his experience as a committed citizen. From 2012 to 2016, the young man, now 32, lived in Colombia and then in the Philippines. Working in international associations as an International Solidarity Volunteer he was involved with people living in slums. When he returned to France, he was struck by the material opulence of our Western society. A society which, paradoxically, does not seem to find any greater happiness in this overconsumption.

He then began to experiment with new ways of being a virtuous eco-citizen and created his blog It starts with me”. For a year, he challenged himself to do something positive for the planet every day: buy used clothes, compost his organic waste, fly only once every three years etc. Result: Julien Vidal now consumes the equivalent of 0.8 planet. And his project is being copied. "More and more people are proud to say: 'it starts with me', enthuses the committed citizen, “We are the generation that will reinvent a more sober and more sustainable way of life". He is convinced that as individuals we have the power to build a society where we live better with less and are happier. His enthusiasm is communicative!