The 'end of carelessness' in Europe

Europe’s high-consumption lifestyle was also highlighted by a report from another sector that said the continent wastes more food than it imports, some 153 million tons, twice previous estimates

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Mon 26 Sep 2022, 10:54 PM

“We are living through the end of abundance.” French President Emmanuel Macron caused a stir late last month when he warned the time for forced austerity had finally arrived in Europe. Even though shops carrying only the finest goods, food, and delicacies continue to line the best boulevards and alleyways in Europe, the notoriously verbose French leader said societies on the continent have arrived at a “great turning point” and “the end of carelessness”.

Pascal Canfin, chairman of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, took it a step further, saying private jets as they exist today should be banned.

“We must make it compulsory for these jets to be emissions-free from a certain date,” he said, noting that this would then enable the technology to be extended to commercial aircraft.

The EU lawmaker is also proposing to regulate consumption activities with what he called the “sobriety police”.

While Canfin could be considered an environmental activist perhaps indulging in a bit of hyperbole, Macron’s ominous comments marked a sharp shift from his previous rhetoric. Two years ago the leader mocked the “Amish ecological model” and the dim “oil lamp” of conservation efforts.

His new outlook is no doubt the result of skyrocketing inflation and energy prices that have all of Europe on edge following a summer that saw areas of France, Portugal and Greece ravaged by forest fires. Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, among others, were hit by severe drought.

Europe’s high-consumption lifestyle was also highlighted by a report from another sector that said the continent wastes more food than it imports, some 153 million tons, twice previous estimates.

The report from the advocacy group Feedback EU comes as the bloc formulates a proposal for the world’s first legally enforceable curb on food waste. Some 43 green non-profits are backing Feedback EU’s call for a 50 percent drop in waste by 2030.

“At a time of high food prices and a cost of living crisis, it’s a scandal that the EU is potentially throwing away more food than it’s importing,” says Frank Mechielsen, director of Feedback EU. “The EU now has a massive opportunity to set legally binding targets to halve its food waste from farm to fork by 2030 to tackle climate change and improve food security.”

While the stereotype on waste could be the image of food snobs sniffing their nose and tossing out some marginally dry pastries, the report says the largest proportion of wasted food – some 90 million tons – is in primary production, three times more than household waste. That figure includes estimates on food on farms left unharvested, unused or unsold.

The study also found that the amount of wheat wasted alone is equal to half of Ukraine’s normal wheat harvest.

Global food prices last month were 8 per cent higher than a year ago, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, partly driven by the war in Ukraine. Wheat, maize and soya bean prices are surpassing records set at the depths of the 2008 world financial crisis.

And as Milan Fashion Week wraps up, it seems appropriate to question how many clothes and new collections the affluent need. On average, people bought 60 per cent more clothes in 2014 than they did in 2000, while garment production generates 2 to 8 per cent of global carbon emissions, according to the UN Environment Programme. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes more than 7,000 liters of water to make a typical pair of jeans. In Europe, fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011.

A large percentage of production is discarded – some studies say 85 per cent of all clothes produced each year – so the drain on resources is enormous. And because polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibers make up about 60 per cent of fabrics used today, clothes are notoriously hard to recycle. Most end up in landfills or are burned.

Products by Europe’s legendary automakers, some the very epitome of consumption and status, are also facing the harsh realities of leaner, more conservation-minded times. Sergio Marchionne, former head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns Ferrari, once remarked in typical colorful language that Ferrari would never build an electric version. Sadly, Marchionne passed on in 2018 and today the Ferrari SF90 Stradale is partly electrified. A full EV version is expected in 2025.

Volkswagen Group, which vies with Toyota for the title of the world’s biggest automaker – it owns brands including Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and Porsche – says it will no longer work on developing gasoline and diesel-powered engines by 2026, effectively announcing the end of the internal combustion engine.

As it faces drought, declines in food production, record inflation, armed conflict and potential energy shortages, Europe’s currency has fallen at a record rate to trade below parity with the dollar, a level not seen since teething pains when the euro was first introduced 23 years ago.

All the signs emphasize it is truly time for Europeans to tighten their collective belt – even if it is made by Gucci.

- Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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