Ethical consumers vs. sustainable consumption

After my previous post, I had few comments and retweets by folks who said I was ‘against’ or doing down, the notion of sustainable consumption.

There’s an important difference between the two. When I said the ethical consumer was not going to lead us to a sustainable future, I didn’t mean we couldn’t have increasingly sustainable consumption. We can, and consumers will play a huge role in that.

(I probably, as usual, didn’t make my point as clearly or thoughtfully as I might have done. Much of what I appear to think on this blog is actually a work in progress. Writing it down helps me make sense of it, and ‘crowd source’ ideas to improve my thinking)

My point was companies have to be very pro-active to make it happen by cutting out the unsustainable choices, rather than waiting for people to stop buying them.

All I meant to say, possibly clumsily, is that giving people what they say they want and then being disappointed at the sales of niche products, is where we have been to date. That’s the ethical consumer debate.

The future, the positive outlook, is leading consumers towards a more sustainable future.

I should have said, in my earlier most, more about this. I said it’s all ‘”at the front end” (design, R&D, closed loop planning), but that’s not quite true: Clearly companies have to bring people along in terms of product use and end of life recycling.

I spent some time this week with someone who has one of the best jobs in the sustainable business world: Working with consumer brands as past of a huge company with very strong sustainability commitments.

His job is to harness the power of marketing for behaviour change and innovation. He made a very convincing case that his brand marketers can sell sustainable change and his firm can drive more sustainable products into people’s houses. That was great to hear, and I felt re-inforced my view that companies have the biggest role to play here, not the more passive ethical consumer.

The general approach of “build it and they will come” of today/yesterday, will soon have to be replaced by: “less sustainable choices will now cost more/be less/not available, here’s how to use them, and what you should do with them afterwards, and incentives for doing that”.

Complex, but easier than waiting for nirvana. And also entirely possible, according to at least to the executive of the very large company mentioned earlier in the post.

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Here below is an interesting video from 2009, on how consumer attitudes may be changing, and how some companies are helping lead them down a more sustainable path:

The post-crisis consumer: John Gerzema on TED.com

(His claims about Patagonia having total product transparency are not true: It’s just a sample of their products they tell the story of online, not all of them, for understandable reasons. Actually, casual assumptions like that one which John Gerzema makes in the video are quite worrying: If that is wrong, how right is the rest of it? But assuming that most of it is, it’s worth watching)

P.S. I also heard a great story, discussed at Davos last week, about the potential for ‘gamification‘ to connect virtual and online communities. Apparently, after a year long trial, real life volunteering in test areas went up 100 times after citizens/Farmville users, were connected with real life community gardens in real time. I can’t find a link about it but it sounds fascinating. May be worth a look.

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