Co-Creating Sustainable Ways of Living 17 Stories of On-the-Ground Innovations

Discussion Paper
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Our lifestyles, through the impacts of our day-to-day activities such as eating, moving and commuting, heating and cooling our homes, caring, working, and so on, have become major threats to the sustainability of the environment. While continued economic growth and 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 of living, in association 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 multi-dimensional challenges, we need to find and create pathways that enable different patterns of living which reduce the negative impacts from our life 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 25 projects (of which 17 were completed by 2019) that are fostering the shift to more sustainable ways of living, based on the unique contexts of local societies.

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 the sustainability of living. These included the 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 basic needs such as food, water, health, and housing. Most of the 17 projects addressed both these challenges. Thus, we can understand efforts aiming at sustainable lifestyles as, at least in the contexts of the 17 projects, 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 awareness/recognition of the issues among the 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. Furthermore, 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 unlocking incumbent patterns of consumption and livelihoods and co-creating alternative contexts of living.
  • 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 in their implementation phase, such as relationship building with their partners and participants who brought in different ideas and demands, compatibility 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 – 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 has been continuing.

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 who are underconsumers, unable to meet their basic needs. 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 enabling others 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 we are not aware of the complete set of desirable patterns of living and the approaches to access them 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. Thus, the essential part of the efforts towards sustainability lies in the self-belief that they can shape alternative contexts for livelihoods and lifestyles, which they then gradually 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.