For any problem to be solved it must be understood. The problem of overconsumption is impacting on our society, and the commercial design, build, fitout and refurbishment industries contribute substantially to this issue.

With a focus on consumption efficiency, together with supporting production efficiency, a new pathway for sustainable development will evolve, leading humanity out of a possible catastrophe.

What catastrophe is looming? Rachel Carson sounded one of the first warnings of a looming catastrophe in 1962 in her seminal book Silent Spring. Dane Wigington of Geoengineering Watch documents the “Coming Collapse”, citing the artificial modification of our earth’s climate systems. Present human consumption patterns and thinking arguably must change. The commercial property sector has a role to play in laying out pathways to this pattern change.

Present consumer trends

There is an overwhelming desire globally to indulge in luxury goods, associate with designer brands and document experiences via social media. French consumer analyst Fanny Perreau identifies four factors influencing consumer behaviour, which comprise cultural factors, social factors, personal factors and psychological factors.

University courses now study consumer behaviour trends. Mainstream economics, also known as “consumption theory”, states simply the more you consume, the more you will enjoy – more is better. The belief is that greed is an acceptable or even a good human behaviour. In reality, while greed by an individual may not be very harmful for a society, the aggregate greed or societal greed could be fatal for all.

Global action

The United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group recently finalised an outcome document on Sustainable Development Goals for integration into the UN Development Agenda beyond 2015.

Not surprisingly poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge facing our world today. Interestingly, “changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production” has been identified as the next most important imperative to be addressed by the UN.

Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production in the commercial property sector include rapid tenancy churn, building and fitout waste with excessive and often inappropriate material selections and inefficient building operations management. A visit to any Australian landfill site provides the visable evidence of our current unsustainable practices.

What is efficient consumption?

Consumption informed by needs can be considered the most efficient as it is the only consumption needed and minimises resource consumption.

The amount of consumption can be calculated by measuring or estimating the survival requirements for food, clothes, shelter and medicine for persons based on age, gender, climate and that person’s health status. Consumption at that amount should be considered as efficient consumption.

Consumption to satisfy desire or craving is not efficient consumption, as it does not relate to survival requirements. It only relieves craving temporarily, but stimulates craving to a higher level at another time. It also promotes excessive utilisation of limited natural resources. Such consumption is clearly inefficient. Consumption that is inadequate to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind also cannot be considered as efficient consumption.

“Remaking the way we make things” is the catchcry of the Cradle to Cradle Products Program. The program promotes outcomes that result from social fairness, material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and water stewardship principles. Recycling, repurposing and reusing are all efficient consumption options

Is consumption of resources and materials in the design and building sectors sustainable?

Research by the UTS Institute of Sustainable Futures commissioned by the Better Buildings Partnership sought to explore why waste occurs in commercial building fitouts. Four factors influencing material recovery were identified as time, cost, transport distances and contamination.

The EPA has estimated the waste being disposed to landfill from the construction and demolition Industries at 450,000 tonnes a year (2004-2005 data). Recycling returns of low grade material are typically $150 a tonne. Extrapolated, this represents a possible $67.5 million a year of material waste in one state of Australia representing consumption inefficiency. Perhaps the Australian quantum of material waste could be as high as $250 million a year.

The 12 principles of efficiency established in 1912 by Harrington Emerson, an American engineer, offer some guidance for considering how our consumption might progress towards increased efficiency. Basic principles such as clearly defined ideals, discipline and common sense sometimes seem lacking when an analysis of our society’s consumption trends are analysed. Indeed, some of our procurement practices seem nonsensical as we import products from across the world when equivalent or superior products are manufactured and available in Australia. We will often cite design, cost or freedom of choice and privilege as reasons to exceed the “survival requirements” of our consumption.

A clear business opportunity is emerging in the commercial property sector. The work and leadership being undertaken by the Better Buildings Partnership is important to develop solutions we can implement in our sector. A focus on consumption efficiency may reap considerable rewards for those early adopters.

Mark Thomson is creative director of Eco Effective Solutions. He has 30 years’ experience in sustainable commercial design as a practicing architect, interior designer and sustainability consultant. He is a faculty member of the Green Building Council of Australia and current president of the Australian Green Development Forum.