Communicating the Development of Sustainable Products

Communicating the practical manifestations of sustainable development will contribute to crossing the traditional barriers and dichotomies between "North" and "South" and creating a sense of global community.

Article by Maurice Strong to the WAY BEYOND magazine (9 July 1996)


In considering the relationship between communication, sustainability and product development, we must recognize the growing economic importance of the South. Developing countries are expected to grow by almost 5% per year in the next decade, compared with only 2.7% for industrialized countries. By the year 2020, nine of the top fifteen economies of the world will be today's rapidly developing countries.

This economic growth is being accompanied by increasing population and even greater urbanization. As urbanization brings about a greater degree of consumerism, environmental degradation in developing countries threatens to undermine the quality oflife and negate many of the benefits of growth. Our environmental future will largely depend on what happens in the developing world, even though historically, environmental problems have originated in the North. Yet we in the industrialized North who have created these problems, and have benefitted economically in doing so, can scarcely deny the right of developing countries to grow.

Given these important trends in developing countries, what role does the North have in communicating sustainable development to the South? Exhortation will be counter-productive. Developing countries win be much more influenced by the example we set and the practical support we provide than by what we say. In the field of technology, the growing drive to convert knowledge into proprietary intellectual property could tend to reduce the total stock of knowledge and restrict access to advancements in technology which could ensure more sustainable product development. This could especially disadvantage those in developing countries whose needs are greatest. Yet it is in Our Common interest to ensure that industrialized countries communicate information on the best state-of-the-art technologies and techniques so that in the course of southern countries' development, they do not add unnecessarily to the pressures on the Earth's environment and resources.

One way in which national governments and foreign aid agencies can do this at a time when funds are hard to come by is by diverting funding away from activities which run counter to sustainable development, such as subsidies to chemically intensive agriculture and fossil fuels. The reorientation and redeployment of these subsidies would provide all the resources required to fund the development and/or transfer of state-of-the-art technologies and techniques.

An initiative in which individual consumers in industrialized countries could become involved is the institution of a voluntary "green tax" or levy on products from developing countries, based on the fact that the prices we pay for them in our markets do not reflect the true environmental and social costs to the countries which produce them. I believe many consumers in industrialized countries would be willing to have a modest addition made to the price of each product in recognition of these costs. For each transaction, the amount would barely be noticeable, but in aggregate it could be significant. And it could be channelled back to the people in communities of the developing world from which such products emanate.

In the North, the mass media can be effective means of communicating the message of sustainable development and promoting initiatives like the "green tax." In the South, governments and foreign aid agencies have a responsibility to, and an interest in supporting the development and dissemination of sustainable products through the deployment of their funding. Communicating the practical manifestations of sustainable development will contribute to crossing the traditional barriers and dichotomies between "North" and "South" and creating a sense of global community.