VIENNA – Manufacturing industries present society with a dilemma. A healthy manufacturing sector helps an economy to grow, thereby raising living standards – an especially important goal for developing countries. But, as factories try to meet ever-growing consumer demand, they deplete the world’s natural resources and pollute the environment. For some, the world now faces a stark choice between rising prosperity and a cleaner, more sustainable environment. In fact, with new technology and fresh thinking, policymakers can strike a durable balance between these competing interests.
In developed countries, consumers are increasingly recognizing that, while their material well-being may be higher than ever, their quality of life suffers if the environment is damaged. For poorer countries, such concerns are dismissed as a rich-world luxury. Industrial expansion is the best way to eradicate poverty, and must surely trump environmental concerns.
No government, rich or poor, can ignore the imperative to encourage economic growth. The manufacturing sector creates jobs, makes affordable products for cash-strapped consumers, produces vital tax revenue that can be used to support social goals, and brings in foreign currency in the form of export revenue. In short, a well-run manufacturing sector spreads wealth across society.
However, trying to satisfy the seemingly endless material demands of consumers at all levels of the economic pyramid has placed an unmanageable burden on the natural world. Resources are being consumed more quickly than the planet can replace them. The manufacturing sector is particularly voracious, devouring over half of all raw materials, around 30% of the world’s energy, and 20% of its water. In the process, it produces too much waste for our fragile ecosystems to absorb.