Economy and Consumption: In Brief

Our consumer behaviour plays a key role in the increasing global use of natural resources and the continuing excessively high environmental impacts. Of all areas involving consumption, nutrition, housing and mobility play a particularly prominent role in these processes in Switzerland. Such a consumption of natural resources exceeds the level that can be sustained by nature. Swiss companies have made considerable efforts to make their production activities more environmentally friendly. Many production stages and the associated environmental impacts arise abroad today.

1. Strong economic and demographic growth (drivers)

There were 6.7 million people living in Switzerland in 1990; today there are more than 8 million. The growth in the demand for living space, gross domestic product (GDP) and consumption was correspondingly strong over the same period:

  • 43,000 new homes were constructed in 2012 alone.
  • GDP increased by 40% in real terms in the period between 1996 and 2013.
  • Household consumption spending also experienced strong growth between 1990 and 2012, i.e. more than 70%.

2. Increasing natural resource consumption (pressures)

This strong growth is also based on high natural resource consumption, for example:

  • Raw materials and energy for the production of consumer goods.
  • Land for settlement growth and the construction of new transport routes, for feed and food, inland and abroad
  • Water for households, factories and agriculture.

Hence, built-up area in Switzerland increased by over 20% between 1985 and 2009. The volume of waste generated doubled to more than 700 kg per capita today.

3. Severe environmental impacts - also abroad (state)

The large-scale use of resources has consequences: if all countries were to consume as much as Switzerland, almost three Earths would be needed to cover their requirements. The main areas of consumption responsible for this high rate of resource use are: food, housing and mobility.

The fact that many material cycles are not closed and raw materials and products are not used sustainably also has a major impact. Despite economic and demographic growth, thanks to environmental policy measures, the overall situation with regard to the environment in Switzerland has improved in recent decades. However, because most of our products and raw materials are imported, the majority of the environmental impacts generated by Swiss consumption arise abroad. This currently accounts for more than 70% of the total impact.


4. Consequences for the environment, economy and society (impacts)

The overuse of natural resources, not only in Switzerland but throughout the world, is pushing the environmental systems of the planet to the limits of their stability and even beyond. The ‘planetary boundaries' concept can be used to pinpoint where this is happening and identify the associated consequences. For example, resource consumption involving the logging of rain forests and combustion of fossil fuels influences climate change and causes losses in biodiversity.

The impacts of the overuse of resources affect not only the environment, but also the economy and society. Economy and society are reliant on the stability of the natural environment and the long-term availability of raw materials and energy. Natural resources constitute a central basis for the welfare of our society. If they are no longer available in sufficient quantities and quality, the economic system and quality of life are at risk.

5. Green Economy (responses)

Since the 1980s, environmental policy has focused on the elimination of pollutants that already exist (so-called ‘end-of-pipe' measures), the definition of limit values, economic instruments such as steering taxes and other measures, which have helped to achieve major progress in Switzerland, for example in the area of water protection and air pollution. The Federal Waste Management Cmmission already anchored the principle of "Avoid, Reduce, Recycle" in its Mission statement in 1986.

However, given the increasing pressure on natural resources, traditional environmental protection is no longer sufficient to ensure the welfare of current and future generations: complementary policies relating to resource conservation and their efficient use are also needed. To this end, the entire life cycle of products - from raw material extraction and recycling to consumption and production - needs to be taken into account.

This also represents a development in the understanding of environmental policy being called for and implemented at international level (e.g. Rio +20, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), European Union and its member countries).

Hence the federal authorities have been implementing measures to promote environmentally-friendly consumption patterns and sustainable public procurement for several years now. The FOEN is also the point of contact for the ecological assessment of biofuels. In 2010, the Federal Council confirmed its intention to permanently include natural resource efficiency in the political agenda, and initiated a policy process for the transition to a ‘green economy'. A green economy is understood as one with a production and consumption system that conserves natural resources while also strengthening the performance of the economy and, hence, the quality of life.

The Federal Council passed the Green Economy Action Plan in 2013. It was conceived as a long-term action plan which complements existing policies in the areas of resource conservation (e.g. biodiversity, forest etc.) and, particularly, the areas of consumption and production, as well as waste and raw materials.

To provide a legal basis for resource efficiency and the closure of material cycles, in February 2014, the Federal Council also submitted a draft for the revision of the Environmental Protection Act to parliament as an indirect counter proposal to the popular initiative "For a sustainable and resource-efficient economy (green economy)". The draft legislation received almost unanimous support from the cantons, however it was rejected by parliament at the end of 2015. The associated action requirement and the efficient use of natural resources and conservation remain topical concerns.

The report "Grüne Wirtschaft - Massnahmen des Bundes für eine ressourcenschonende, zukunftsfähige Schweiz" ("The Green Economy - Federal Measures for a Resource-Conserving and Future-Proof Switzerland"), which was adopted by the Federal Council on 20 April 2016, assesses the implementation of the 2013 Green Economy Action Plan and outlines the further development of the green economy on the existing legislative basis. The measures are summarised in nine priority areas from the three core areas of consumption and production, waste and raw materials, and cross-cutting instruments. They translate the cross-cutting strategies enshrined in the UN's sustainable development goals (SDG) and the Federal Council's Sustainable Development Strategy into concrete form. The primary focus is on supporting the voluntary commitment of the targeted actors. Innovation, research and international cooperation are also important pillars of a green economy.

The FOEN also follows international developments closely, especially the Circular Economy Package adopted by the European Commission in December 2015.

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Last modification 21.04.2016

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