Switzerland is living beyond its ecological means. If all people on Earth would consume as much as the Swiss, about three planet Earths would be needed to provide the resources needed to sustain their way of life. The Earth is simply not big enough to sustain our lifestyle in the long term.
Moreover, Switzerland’s resource consumption is being transferred to other countries. While the pressure on domestic resource declined steadily in recent decades, increasing volumes of resources were imported from abroad. Hence, according to a study carried out by the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) in 2014, the environmental impact of resource consumption within Switzerland declined by around one third from the mid-1990s to 2011. At the same time, however, the environmental impact generated by imports increased by around one half. Meanwhile, Switzerland consumes almost three times more ‘environment’ abroad than it does at home. Therefore the improvements made in the quality of the air and water in Switzerland should not distract us from the fact that its resource consumption remains too high. This is related to the international division of labour: when a dress is made abroad, the associated environmental costs arise there. If the wine comes from Napa Valley instead of the canton of Valais, it causes little or no environmental impact in Switzerland, however the total impact on the global environment increases.
Food tops the list when it comes to resource consumption. The supply of foodstuffs accounts for 28 percent of the total environmental impact generated by consumption. The distribution of this impact varies, however. Thus, while cereals, potatoes, starches, sugar and nuts account for almost one quarter of the volume of foodstuffs consumed, they account for les than one tenth of the environmental impact. Conversely, while meat and fish represent less than one tenth of the volume consumed, they are responsible for almost one quarter of the environmental impact. Hence consumers can control their personal environmental impact through their shopping baskets.
Living and mobility are the other consumption areas with high environmental impacts. Thanks to progress in energy policy, direct energy consumption in the area of living, a major contributor to environmental impact, has been declining for years. It has fallen by one fifth since the year 2000. This is mainly due to the decline in oil-fired heating systems and the greater energy efficiency of new buildings. Consumers can control energy consumption through their living habits.
Mobility has increased considerably in Switzerland in the last two decades. The volume of rail transport rose by 50 percent and that of private transport by 12 percent. This rise could only be compensated in part by the declines in the fuel consumption of vehicles. Thus the environmental impact of transport has risen by 20 percent within a period of two decades.
Consumers are part of the decision-making process. The state can define the conditions for reducing resource consumption. The economy can develop products and services that consume fewer resources. However, these products and services can only be effective if there is a demand for them. Thus creating a Green Economy is not only a task for business people, researchers and developers; it will only become a reality if it is embraced by consumers in their everyday lives.