Incorporating Sustainability into Consumer Protection Policy

The research into incorporating sustainability into consumer protection policy aims to make a contribution to the UNCTAD RPP Research and Policy Analysis Area: The role of competition law and policy and consumer protection in economic and social development and poverty reduction, and more specifically the Sub-Element: The role of consumer protection in social development and poverty reduction.



Consumer rights are central to achieving sustainable development, because, as elucidated by Consumers International, these rights contribute towards a fairer, safer and healthier society, and a more equitable and efficient economy. Global attention has increasingly been focussed on sustainable development and sustainable production and consumption. Since the early 1980's there is a clear series of milestones as global consensus emerged on the need for sustainable consumption and production to be recognised as a critical dimension of sustainable development, and how sustainability started to become incorporated into consumer protection policies, as one policy instrument to assist in this quest to achieve more sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Sustainable consumption has its roots in the notion of sustainable development, and started to come into its own and take its place on the international policy agenda in the early 1990's (Berg, 2011). Prior to this, the locus of concern had centred around the environmental impact of consumption and production and the need to push Governments to create more enabling conditions to persuade and cajole business, or if necessary regulate compulsory steps to be taken to move towards more sustainable methods of production. Global discussion of, and later consensus around the centrality of sustainable development as an issue requiring prioritization by governments, emerged from the Brundtland Commission. The impetus for the establishment of this Commission was the passing of Resolution 38/161 by the United Nations General Assembly in 1983, which recognised the ever-increasing deterioration of the global human environment and natural resources and for the first time made explicit the viewpoint that for development initiatives to have a lasting and sustainable impact, these needed to "take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, the environment and development" (United Nations Resolution). Flowing from Resolution 38/161 the United Nations set up the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), under the chairpersonship of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway. The Commission released a report, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, in October 1987. The proposals made by the Commission are regarded as a cornerstone in a global definition of the term Sustainable Development.

The Commission crafted the definition of sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". There are views (notably Reisch, in Connelly and Prothero, 2010) that this definition is too wide-ranging and that there is a need for greater precision in this definition. There is a counterview (Daly, 2010) that at the time of the Brundtland Commission, it was tactically more advantageous to achieve consensus recognising the fundamental global significance of sustainable development as a common goal for countries to strive to achieve. Daly (2010) thus contends that "lack of a precise definition may not be without benefit, as it has allowed a consensus to evolve in support to the main idea". Connelly and Prothero (2010) do acknowledge that the vagueness of the definition of sustainable development was what made a greater number of governments feel more comfortable to express support for sustainable development as an ideal. Prior to this, there had been uneasiness and reticence for countries to indicate commitment to begin to take action to change the way in which economic development had been taking place. Up until that point, concern for the environment and acknowledgement of the need to extract and utilize resources taking cognisance of the needs of future generations had not been universally accepted and respected. On the back of this "softer" and less prescriptive definition of sustainable development as put forward by the Brundtland Commission, various countries started to take the initiative and use this broad consensual definition as the basis to begin to explore ways to introduce national policy to pursue more sustainable production methods and consumption patterns.

Five years after the publication of the Brundtland Report, the United Nations convened the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, also known as the Rio Summit, Rio Conference, and Earth Summit. Much of the business of the Rio Summit was to define sustainable development in more specific terms. After intense discussion, debate and negotiation, the centre-piece of the Rio Conference Resolutions was general acceptance by the world leaders present at the Summit that sustainable development calls for a convergence between the three pillars of economic development, social equity and environmental protection (Drexhage and Murphy, 2010).

The Rio Conference also adopted Agenda 21 (Earth Summit Agenda 21, 1993), which became the United Nations blue-print for sustainable development and set the global green "action agenda". The need to change consumption patterns is one of the socio-economic dimensions incorporated within the overall action plan, which is comprehensive and multi-facetted. Agenda 21 is voluntary and non-binding on states. Despite this seeming consensus on the need for inter-linkages between economic, social and environmental considerations in pursuit of sustainable development, Matthews and Hammill (2009: 1119) concur with Drexhage and Murphy and note in relation to sustainable development that "the concept remains elusive" and there have been difficulties "in designing the move from theory to practice" due to multi-facetted issues such as technological, political and other constraints, and the complex interplay across and between these factors. Thus in the face of governments and organizations having taken up sustainable development as a desirable goal, and setting up processes to integrate this into national policy frameworks alongside developing metrics to track progress, the achievement of sustainable development goals has proved difficult and complex. Drexhage and Murphy (2010) contend further that unsustainable practices and trends have continued and sustainable development has been whittled down and (re)compartmentalised as an environmental issue. In large part, this is due to developed countries using positive economic growth as a proxy measurement for development. Economic development in and of itself does not necessarily incorporate and counter-balance the social equity and environmental dimensions as per the Rio Summit definition of sustainable development. This creates a possible tension between economic growth and sustainability. Thus the literature suggests that the challenges in relation to sustainable development are not as much in the need to refine or re-work the definition of sustainable development as set out in the Rio Summit Resolution. Rather, what requires more in depth consideration is what measures need to be put into place - both at policy level and translated into public service delivery plans and programmes of action - to simultaneously realise economic development, social equity and environmental protection. In working to achieve this, global debates thus began to shift towards the notion of sustainable consumption as shifts in consumption patterns towards more sustainable levels are regarded as a key part of bringing about sustainable development.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development underscore this and posit that "The choices that consumers make have significant social, economic and environmental implications. In particular, consumer choices can often have an impact on sustainable development". This suggests that ways need to be found to incorporate sustainability into consumer protection policy as a means to promote economic and social development and poverty reduction.



The objective of this research is to compare and analyse some of the best practices of incorporating sustainability into consumer protection policy, particularly in African countries. The comparative research will examine legislative frameworks in other countries to identify best practice in other countries in order to propose ways in which South African policy could be amended to embrace sustainable consumption practices and in-so-doing begin to steer consumer behaviour towards more socially equitable consumption choices. Although specific to South Africa, it is hoped that other countries can consider the framework and use this as the basis for developing country-specific frameworks.


Project Plan

Research Phase Research method

Phase One
To review and study literature to understand how consumer protection policies developed; what is sustainability and sustainable consumption and to look at the African context of consumer protection and sustainability

Literature study

Phase Two
To analyse the consumer protection policy frameworks of identified developed countries and a cohort of African countries to ascertain how sustainability has been incorporated into consumer policy

Content analysis

Phase Three
To analyse South African consumer protection policies

Content analysis

Phase Four
To extract comparable best practice for South Africa

Interpretive studies

Phase Five
To validate the extracted best practices by asking members of the South African National Consumer Tribunal to critique the proposed Guidelines

Expert Review

Phase Six
Make recommendations how business can incorporate best practices

Interpretive studies

Phase Seven
To confirm the business recommendations with a focus group

Focus group


This study will contribute to a better understanding of the following:

  • How sustainability can be incorporated into consumer protection policies in South Africa.
  • Offer best practice guidelines to the South African Government, as well as to other African countries, for incorporating sustainability into consumer protection policies.
  • Provide best practice guidelines to business to inform business practices and processes.
  • Contribute to the academic knowledge of consumer protection and sustainability literature.
  • Contribute to the debate on sustainable consumption, in a policy arena with a natural tension between consumer protection policies that encourage consumption on the one hand, and sustainability policies on the other that serve to limit consumption by encouraging consumers to consider the impact of their consumption on the global resource pool.

Current Phase of Implementation

The project has been completed



Contact Information

Laura Best, Project researcher
Prof Miemie Struwig, Project Leader and Advisor
School of Business Management
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
South Africa