International Youth Day: Can Youth Be The Catalyst For A Sustainable Future?

The global population is estimated to touch 8.5 billion by 2030 and consequently the demand for resources is bound to increase drastically.

The International Youth Day, celebrated on August 12 every year, provides an opportunity to celebrate and mainstream young peoples' voices, actions and initiatives, as well as their meaningful, universal and equitable engagement. The theme of International Youth Day 2020, "Youth Engagement for Global Action" seeks to highlight the ways in which the engagement of young people at the local, national and global levels is enriching national and multilateral institutions and processes, as well as draw lessons on how their representation and engagement in formal institutional politics can be significantly enhanced.

The global population is estimated to touch 8.5 billion by 2030 and consequently the demand for resources is bound to increase drastically. The World Youth Report estimates that globally one out of every six people is between the age of 15 and 24; and by 2030 this age group would total up to 1.3 billion. In the current situation, with increased consumption and availability and access to resources becoming limited, it becomes imperative to embrace sustainability in all forms to provide a safe environment for future generations.

Sustainability as defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Today, there are almost 140 developing countries are struggling to balance rising/exploding consumption demands, with the increasing ecological threat that may negatively affect future generations .

While looking at production of goods, the Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) is the fourth largest sector in the Indian economy. The FMCG's urban segment grew by 8 per cent, whereas, its rural segment grew at 5 per cent in the quarter ending September 2019, supported by moderate inflation, increase in private consumption and rural income. There are three main segments in the FMCG sector – food and beverages, which accounts for 19 per cent of the sector; healthcare, which accounts for 31 per cent of the share; and household and personal care, which accounts for the remaining 50 per cent share.

To better understand the link between sustainability, social and environmental impacts let us take the FMCG sector and the universal ingredient used in most of the FMCG products – 'palm oil'. More than 62 million metric tons of palm oil are produced globally on 20 million hectares of land. The production of palm oil in India started in 1991 with five thousand tonnes which increased to two lakh tonnes in 2018. The current consumption of palm oil is more than 9.3 million tonnes and is expected to double by 2030. Since the domestic production is limited, large scale imports are inevitable. Bulk of the imports come from Malaysia and Indonesia; together these countries produce 85% of the global palm oil production.

The exponential growth in the demand for palm oil has led to the indiscriminate clearing of vast tracks of virgin forest lands, which poses grave threats to the biodiversity, wildlife and the indigenous people living in the areas. Tropical forests are being converted to oil palm plantations across Southeast Asia, and increasingly in Africa and Latin America.

In Malaysia and Singapore, stinging smoke from massive wildfires resulting from illegal slash-and-burn methods used to clear farmland for cash crops such as palm oil has become an annual event. The haze has huge health (thousands of people have reported acute respiratory illnesses) and economic ramifications; in 2015, economic losses in Indonesia due to the haze were estimated at USD 16 billion.

Further, unsustainable production of palm oil results in significant emissions of greenhouse gases causing climate change, affecting habitats of endangered species. Human rights violations of indigenous communities due to land disputes with palm producers are prevalent. Given these largescale global impacts, it becomes important to make palm oil a sustainable commodity.

One such way is through the development of sustainable framework/certification and standardization. The frameworks place a set of environmental and social criteria at each stage of the value chain, which must be complied with in order to produce and consume 'certified sustainable palm oil'. The certification process ensures that palm oil was produced sustainably without any detrimental impacts to the society.

It is believed that the Youth as the next generation hold the key to shaping a "better world" through their actions. A study done by Goldman Sachs concludes that the youth, comprising 440 million millennials and 390 million Gen Zs (born after 2000), will be the drivers of consumerism in India. Just by their sheer size the young (18-35 years) of the world, backed with the knowledge could pave the way for sustainable growth and leapfrog the overall discourse on sustainability.

It is important to link these impacts with wider issues such as climate change and air pollution that resonate with consumers. Larger awareness can lead to demand for increase in accountability and transparency from businesses on the sources of raw materials such as palm oil and promote collaborations and partnerships among players involved in palm oil value chain.

Keeping the goal of raising awareness of youth as consumers on sustainability and the impact of using sustainable palm oil, the Centre for Responsible Business (CRB) in collaboration with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) have conceptualized and developed a Youth Fellowship for Sustainable Palm Oil (YfS). The fellowship that was rolled out in early 2020 aims to offer a one-of-its-kind opportunity to youth to take charge by engaging and shaping the sustainability/SDG agenda based on their own ideas and actions. In the course of the fellowship, the four selected candidates will have the opportunity to be mentored by sustainability champions on ideas/call to actions related to sustainability/SDGs (specifically SDG12 and SDG13).

Punyasloka Panda, one of the fellows working with youth volunteers and youth organizations on promote the importance of sustainable actions amongst youth is of the opinion that "the youth play a vital role as they help bridge the gap between today and tomorrow, the onus of a sustainable future thus, lies on the youth of today. Systematic changes can come when we have a catalytic delegation of youth in the process enabling innovation, volunteerism".

Vagisha Anant, another fellow, who through the fellowship is planning to collaborate with hotels and organizations urging them to switch to sustainable methods and sustainable palm oil, while defining sustainability and sustainable living said that "sustainable living is a choice that an individual makes, it is indeed a rewarding choice."

According to Rashmi Subramanian, "Sustainability is a modern way of life for the traditional concept that incorporates respect for resources. Sustainability is a package of concern, optimal utilisation and humility about the position in the ecosystem." She is working on creating an app- Upayog that makes sustainability part and parcel of day to day lifestyles.

The youth of today live in an interconnected world with seamless flow of information. It is important to use this to change the views and perspective of young citizens towards the concept of sustainability. A small change in actions now will pay dividends later; and these changes could begin at an individual level.

Seemingly inconsequential actions such as closing water taps, using the wastewater from reverse osmosis (RO) systems for other purposes, switching off lights when not required, segregating waste and avoiding the use of single use plastics can go a long way in transitioning towards a sustainable future. In the same light, demanding for sustainable sourcing of palm oil, which is a key component of a number of FMCG products, will drive businesses to incorporate sustainable practices.

Over the years, CRB has promoted the idea of sustainability and sustainable practices amongst the youth. As an organization, CRB recognizes the importance of youth engagement for global/national and local actions. Keeping this in mind, CRB continues to involve interested youth advocates in its annual sustainability conference – India & Sustainability Standards. This international dialogue platform provides the youth with an opportunity to engage with domain specialists on ideas related to sustainability and reinforces their responsibility towards a sustainable future.

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Writer : Bhavya Sharma
Creatives : Abhishek M
Guest Author : Bhavya Sharma