Part-one of the four-part Resource Conference Cymru 2021 webinar series considered how a circular economy can reduce consumption in Wales. Brian Mayne, Chair of CIWM Cymru Wales and webinar chair, recounts some of the highlights.
This blog provides a brief outline of some of the questions, comments and poll results from the webinar along with stuff I wish I‘d said. The webinar investigated whether a circular economy, where we value resources and avoid waste, can actually reduce what Wales consumes.
Dr Andy Rees OBE Head of Waste Strategy, Welsh Government gave an outline of the key parts of Beyond Recycling, the Welsh Governments strategy to make the circular economy in Wales a reality. Andy looked at the issues relating to consumption, rather than a complete coverage of the strategy and also provided some personal examples of his own actions and suggestions on consumption.
He explained that Wales currently consumes 2.5 planets worth of resources, but it wants to work towards a position where it uses only its fair share and set out some of the targets in the strategy to reduce what Wales consumes. He also highlighted a range of actions that Welsh Government are undertaking in supporting organisation achieve these targets.
Andy concluded his presentation by setting out a number of challenges & questions to the audience and panellists. One particular question ‘How do we convince / incentivise citizens to buy low carbon, resource efficient products? was addressed by panellist Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) who responded by saying that we need to ‘make it cheaper, easier and more normal to share things, to borrow things to buy less stuff’, as well as bursting the myth of consumption that buying things makes you happy. Co-panellist Ella Smillie, Director and co-founder of Benthyg Cymru – Wales’s Library of Things – concurred with Lorraine and explained that one of the ways to create change is to make ‘borrowing as easy as popping out for a loaf of bread’.
The audience were then asked to participate in a poll on what they thought Government should carry out to reduce consumption.
Ella was supportive of taxation as long as it was directed at ‘nudging’ behaviour change and not introduced as a punitive measure that might exacerbate inequalities. Liking it to the sugar tax she explained that manufacturers had reformulated their products to reduce the amount of sugar in order to come below the threshold where the tax would be applied, therefore, not impacting upon consumers financially.
For information Andy pointed out that Welsh Government don’t have powers to introduce these taxes, without first getting the consent of both Houses of Parliament and the UK Government.
The audience were then asked what they did to reduce their own consumption from a list of activities. Reducing waste and watching what they bought were the two areas highlighted by most of the audience.
However, despite everyone’s actions, a further poll identified that a consumerist culture, that is one defined by the ongoing pursuit of satisfaction, identity, and community through the consumption of goods, was the biggest barrier to reducing consumption.
Despite this barrier the audience acknowledged that two main benefits to consumers of reducing their consumption were environmental and financial. As regards the financial impact an audience member reminded me of the Vimes “Boots” Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, which was written by Terry Pratchett in 1993 as part of his book Men At Arms, in his discworld series. Basically, it may be beneficial for you to weigh the long-term benefits of spending more now to save later — don’t just buy the cheapest pair! But that is of course if you can afford it in the first place.
Lorraine highlighted that research undertaken by CAST who have been polling the public before and during the pandemic confirmed this increase in public concern about environmental issues such as bio diversity, climate change and resource consumption. She also reflected that perhaps the poll could have included ‘well- being’ as a benefit identifying that people who are less materialistic tend to have a higher well- being. One audience member commented that ‘if there was less pressure to consume, we don’t need to earn as much and so can achieve better work/ life balance’. A similar view to that advocated by supporters of the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement. 
A further poll looked at whether the audience were prepared to share various items and whilst DIY equipment was identified as the item most likely to be shared there were numerous other things that people raised such as books, baby clothes and equipment not listed in the poll. It is worth noting that Benthyg have a catalogue of items from camping to disability aids available for people to borrow. They also have a toolkit available based on their experience, that can others set up their own library of things providing a positive impact on communities and help save local residents money.
The penultimate poll found that the audience expected consumers to be unlikely to change their spending habits as a result of the pandemic and start consuming less, however research has identified that we will see some change in consumers attitudes, behaviours and purchasing habits—and many of these new ways will remain post-pandemic.
The final poll asked the audience and the panellists ‘how old is the oldest electric household appliance you own?’ with Andy informing us that he still has a working singer sewing machine at least 60 years old and members of the audience providing many examples including a 32-year-old Technics HI Fi, a 45-year-old Scalextric set and another sewing machine this one a Pfaff model for the 50’s all showing that new does not necessarily mean better.
All of the presenters identified that the circular economy provides us with tools and practices that can tackle consumption by borrowing, sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, extending the life cycle of products and therefore reducing the need to consume replacements.
It is down to us therefore to utilise a range of measures at our disposal; policy, legislation and behaviour change to ensure that we encourage consumers to act differently, think differently and consume differently.
 Households consumed 10% less sugar from soft drinks in the 12 months after the sugar tax was introduced in April 2018 https://news.sky.com/story/sugar-tax-consumption-of-sugar-from-soft-drinks-falls-by-10-12242372 Accessed 24/03/21
 See CAST Briefings no. 5, 6 and 8: https://cast.ac.uk/publications/
 Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’[Duane Elgin, Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (1st ed, 2000) Ch. 4] this approach to life involves providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimizing expenditure on consumer goods and services, and directing progressively more time and energy towards pursuing non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning.[Amitai Etzioni, ‘Voluntary Simplicity: A New Social Movement?’ in William Halal and Kenneth Taylor, Twenty-First Century Economics: Perspectives of Socioeconomics for a Changing World (1999). http://simplicitycollective.com/start-here/what-is-voluntary-simplicity-2 Accessed 24/03 2021
 COVID-19: How consumer behavior will be changed Accenture Research Report April 2020 https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/consumer-goods-services/coronavirus-consumer-behavior-research accessed 24/03/21
Author: Brian Mayne
Brian is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and Chartered Institution of Wastes Management. He is a Chartered Environmentalist and is recognised by the International Solid Waste Association as an International Waste Manager. He is presently chairperson of CIWM Cymru Wales.