The ethical consumer at scale myth: Why do we persist in believing we can buy our way out of trouble?

For around five or more years now, we’ve seen CEO after CEO swallow the greener/’ethical’ consumer marketing schtick from colleagues who perhaps might have known better.

The numbers do not lie: ‘ethical consumers’ (I use the term in inverted commas), no matter where you look, are simply not revolutionising markets and company product and service line-ups at any kind of scale.

We need to accept now that it is not going to happen and is in fact an unhelpful distraction.

ALL the research shows, when you cut through it, that it will be systems change at the ‘top end’ that delivers sustainability at scale: By companies, in R&D, design, takeback and product makeup, and by governments, which will have to be pushed by alliances of companies and others to help support these changes.

Smart NGOs, prepared to accept the reality of 9 billion people, can play a useful role on the ground, helping monitor and set frameworks, while pushing for the bar to be continually raised.

Some governments, such China, will do it more directly by dictat and rules, others more by pull, cajole and incentivise, rather than nudge. It will be a mix of both if we get it right.

The latest nail in the coffin of the dreadful ethical consumer marketing canard, is the news that carbon labelling at Tesco, something many of us knew would never work at scale and in consumer communications, is dead in the water. Thank goodness for that. Now we can all get back to reality.

The sooner recognise this and stop kidding ourselves, the sooner CEOs will realise they, not consumers, and not really governments, will have to drive the change needed.

The long term rewards for doing so may be currently indistinct, (unless you are a close reader of environmental science and agriculture futures), but their shadow grows more closely defined through the current fog.

Indistinct but in the visible distance is much better bet than wishing on mirages.

Your CEO might think that admitting this will make it harder to move towards the path of sustainability in products and services: He or she is wrong, it makes it a LOT easier, given that once you realise that voluntary ethical consumers at scale are a myth, you realise there are so many less variables to overcome.

Not convinced by my argument? Then read this: http://www.mythoftheethicalconsumer.com/home

Or get the short version here.

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