Co-Creating Sustainable Ways of Living 24 Stories of On-the-Ground Innovations

Discussion Paper

Our lifestyles, through the impacts of our day-to-day activities such as eating, moving and commuting, heating and cooling our homes, taking work and care responsibilities, and so on, have become major threats to the sustainability of the environment. We are living beyond our ecological means and experiencing both very serious impacts on biodiversity, on a stable climate, on ecosystems, as well as facing difficult challenges related to vast social inequalities and reduced mental and physical health. While continued economic development and increased urbanisation in many countries are expected, it is imperative to consider how we could shift our current consumption-intensive ways of life into more responsible ones which produce fewer negative impacts. At the same time, people in many societies suffer from instability or insecurity in their ways of living, associated with rapid changes in environmental, economic and societal conditions. We need to continue our efforts to create a society where everyone can meet their needs in more resilient and reliable ways. Given these multidimensional challenges, we need to find and create pathways that enable diverse patterns of living which reduce negative impacts from our everyday lives on the environment and society, and realise more secure and stable means of meeting day-to-day needs.

In this context, the Sustainable Lifestyles and Education (SLE) Programme was launched in 2014
as one of the six programmes under the UN 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns (10YFP, which is now known as the One-Planet Network). The SLE Programme has supported 24 projects that are fostering the shift to more sustainable ways of living. Based on the unique contexts of local societies, the 24 projects identified the needs and opportunities for creating contexts where local people can live more sustainable and resilient lives, and carried out a diversity of actions toward achieving their goals. They faced many unforeseen situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic which made it difficult to fulfil some of the planned activities. However, these challenging situations enabled the project teams and partners, as well as the SLE Programme Coordination Desk, to revisit the meanings of their efforts to enable sustainable and reliable ways of living.

This report elaborates on the essential points of these projects, including the challenges of sustainable lifestyles, opportunities utilised, actions taken, learning, and other achievements. Highlights include:

  • Challenges of sustainable lifestyles: Reflecting the various and specific conditions of society, economy, and environment of the countries or regions, the projects identified a diversity of challenges that pose threats to sustainable ways of living. These included increasing demand for water, energy and food, as well as the wasting of food and other products, and the insecurity and instability of livelihoods and meeting basic needs such as food, water, health, and housing. Most of the 24 projects addressed these challenges. Thus, we can understand efforts aiming at sustainable lifestyles as the (co-)creation of alternative means and contexts of living that enable people to live more responsibly (with mitigated negative impacts), and to live in a more stable way (through securing their livelihoods and basic needs).
  • Opportunities utilised: In addressing the challenges, projects took advantage of unique opportunities, including raising awareness/recognition of the issues among local stakeholders such as citizens, local governments and the private sector, availability of untapped resources that may help fulfil people’s needs with reduced negative impacts, and accessibility of tools or methodologies
  • Actions taken: Projects took multiple actions combining some of the following approaches: visualisation of the impacts of the current patterns of consumption and livelihoods on the environment or stability of livelihoods, visualisation of the benefits of choosing alternative means of living, provision of tools, equipment or facilities that help them fulfil their needs in alternative ways, and development of capacities (skills and knowledge) of individuals and organisations (including governments) for effectively utilising information, tools and facilities in creating alternative patterns of living. Visualisation of the benefits of alternative practices can support people more effectively when they are combined with the opportunities to collectively try and intake new practices. Therefore, some projects set up spaces for co-learning and co-creation by participants in generating new social norms and alternative contexts of living. Schools, community spaces and workplaces served as the basis for setting up such co-creating spaces, and sometimes arts and music were used to bring people together in these spaces. The majority of the projects applied more than one of these approaches in growing the capacities and aspirations of the people, organisations, and the local society and economy toward co-creating alternative patterns of consumption and livelihoods.
  • Learning: No project can understand thoroughly the contexts of local living conditions and the most effective means of changing them prior to implementation of the project. All projects faced some unexpected conditions that emerged in their implementation phase, such as relationship building with their partners and participants who brought in different ideas and demands, compatibility or incompatibility of the knowledge, skills, tools and so on with local cultures or environments, and unforeseen changes in external conditions such as the economy, society or climate. Confrontation with unexpected conditions like these was an inevitable part of the efforts to promote sustainable lifestyles since this enabled the projects to gain a deeper understanding of the issues of living and living conditions, and thus design more effective implementation processes.
  • Achievements: Projects were urged to reconsider their action plans in response to any unexpected
    conditions; despite such conditions, they achieved more than the outputs and outcomes originally planned. Actions for creating and spreading alternative means of fulfilling needs and creating livelihoods needed to reflect ever-changing local conditions, and thus the project teams and their partners were urged to co-create knowledge about the living conditions, technologies, skills and capacities of the local people, with strengthened organisations or communities.
  • Scaling: Informed by the learning obtained through implementation, some of the projects reconsidered their goals – or the visions of the desired conditions of lifestyles and societies
    – and adapted them into something different from their original plans. Some projects started building partnerships with stakeholders such as local government, educators, or business, although this had not been planned at the start. Therefore, scaling deep, which refers to ‘(c) hanging relationships, cultural values and beliefs’ (Moore and Riddell, 2016) in addition to scaling up (changing institutions at the level of policy, rules and laws) and scaling out (replication and dissemination, increasing number of people or communities impacted), started even before the completion of the projects and still continues.

The above lessons suggest that we must broaden our perspective to better understand the needs and approaches to sustainable lifestyles. First, while past understanding and practices in pursuit of sustainable lifestyles focused on the negative impacts deriving from ever-increasing consumption by high consumers including those in the industrialised world, not enough attention has been paid to the various other conditions that jeopardise day-to-day living. There are many under-consumers, who are unable to meet their basic needs. Moreover, even the lives of people who manage to fulfil their necessities may be easily endangered with societal-level changes, as was illustrated by the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Linkages between these two conditions – impacts from overconsumption and vulnerability of living – should also be addressed to enable alternative contexts of living both for high-consumers and those under vulnerable living conditions. High-consuming lives are being supported at the cost of others being able to live dignified and sustainable lives. Those living less impactful lives have also great wisdom to share in how to live in less wasteful, resourceful and sustainable ways. Second, we should keep in mind that there is no one definitive understanding of desirable and sustainable patterns of living and approaches, and that the project teams did not have a clear roadmap prior to implementation. Through learning-by- doing, project teams and partners gradually gain a deeper understanding of their desirable patterns of living as well as their capacities to enable them in stronger collaboration with their partners. The unforeseen challenges to the local living conditions such as the pandemic have prompted the project teams and partners to deepen their understanding of the meaning of sustainable and reliable means of living, as well as the capacities they need to develop. Thus, the essential part of the efforts towards sustainability lies in the self-belief that they can shape or maintain alternative contexts for livelihoods and lifestyles, which they then developed through collaboration and co-creation. With this in mind, partners such as donors or programme coordinators could effectively support such ground-level initiatives through a flexible mode of monitoring and evaluation that encourages adaptive planning and implementation instead of merely checking progress-as-planned, as well as facilitating dialogues toward creating and sharing narratives of changes and empowerment. In other words, co-producers, rather than supervisors are required to make the best of these efforts toward sustainable lifestyles.
In summary, the project teams, partners and the SLE Programme learned that sustainable, secure and reliable ways of living are not predetermined goals based on assessments of individual lives, but rather a process of collective learning and co-creation by all partners to develop aspirations and capacities that can envision and shape alternative living contexts. The 24 projects also shed light on the limitations of exploring sustainable living through the lens of high-consumer lifestyles. There are also critical insights to be gained by focusing on alternative ways of living and livelihoods, the relationships between high-consumer and lower-income and consumer ways of living, and extending considerations beyond ecological sustainability and inclusivity to the security of everyday lives.

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