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Forget Sustainable Consumption. Focus on Sustainable Citizenship

Raz Godelnik
| Tuesday November 26th, 2013 | 2 Comments

fracking demonstration in ColoradoOn Sunday, Swiss voters rejected a proposal to limit executives’ pay to no more than 12 times the lowest-paid workers in their companies.

This vote ended a very interesting week in which the Governor of Colorado proposed strict limits on greenhouse gas leaks from drilling, Scotland embraced natural capital, the EU decided to devote 20 percent of its 2014-2020 budget to climate spending, the Massachusetts state Senate passed a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour, the two groups of retailers that signed separate safety agreements in Bangladesh agreed on joint inspection standards, and JPMorgan signed a $13 billion settlement over its mortgage practices.

What’s the common denominator in all of these stories? These are developments that address some of the major sustainability issues we face, from climate change to inequality to ethics of supply chains. Some of these developments seem to be more successful than the others, but they all look to generate systemic and substantial changes.

Oh, and there’s one more thing – they have nothing to do with sustainable consumption.

While the sustainable business world keeps focusing on ways to increase sustainable consumption as a path to a more sustainable future, when we look at reality we see a clear pattern – systemic changes that make or will make a difference are derived by sustainable citizenship, not sustainable consumption.

It’s not that sustainable consumption has no value or importance whatsoever. It’s just that it mostly generates incremental results when it comes to the most important issues like climate change, increased scarcity of our resources or inequality. Therefore, given the time constraints we have to redirect our ship onto a safer route, it might be the time to seriously discuss the effectiveness of the sustainable consumption vision. And is there a better time to do it than on the week of Black Friday?

When we talk about sustainable consumption, we refer to shifting consumer behavior towards more sustainable lifestyles. While not all of these “new” behaviors are necessarily about purchasing sustainable products, even those that are more socially or environmentally related (recycling, getting outdoors, or healthy living) are still presented many times in a consumer culture context, reflecting what Anne Chick calls “product-based well-being solutions” approaches.

And let’s face it. It doesn’t work that well. Even when companies succeed in changing consumer behavior, these changes don’t have enough impact to make a difference on a large scale. One common explanation is that even with all the buzz around changing consumer behavior, only a few companies are involved in such efforts. According to a new survey by Futerra and BSR, this is actually not true – “nearly 40 percent of companies surveyed are already trying to encourage more sustainable lifestyles.”

Another explanation might be that companies haven’t yet found the best practices to get consumers on the sustainability bandwagon or that the obstacles are just too great to overcome. This might be true, but we already see a growing number of successful case studies, showing how companies can make some progress in changing consumer behavior, and we all know that companies have managed to overcome similar, if not more difficult, obstacles in the past.

It could be that it’s just too early, and in 10 or 15 years a combination of growing awareness of consumers, product innovation and a better mastery of behavior change tactics will eventually enable companies to move the needle. It could be. But if we look at recent history (or even look at future scenarios), we can see that most challenges successfully addressed were not led by companies and were not in the context of a consumer culture, so is there any reason to think it would be different when it comes to sustainability?

Just think of climate change and the challenge to limit warming to two degrees – while it’s clear that we need technological innovation and adoption of smart solutions by consumers, I think it’s pretty clear that to win this battle we need to see more policymakers that understand the need of immediate actions, citizens that help pass fracking bans, students participating in the divestment movement, and local activists fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline.

It’s not that companies cannot have an impact (see this example from Nike), but when it comes to climate change and some other major challenges we face, the public discourse and the political process are what matters, and reducing a company’s (or group of companies’) carbon footprint by altering consumer behavior just won’t change either of them. Whether companies like it or not, to make a shift in the public discourse or the political process, what we need is more engaged and active citizens, not smarter consumers.

So does it mean companies should stop focusing on changing consumer behavior? Not at all! Companies still need to work hard on providing better solutions to the growing trend of “spend-shifting” away from mindless consumption towards mindful purchases. They just need to be realistic and understand that while changing consumer behavior will probably be good for their bottom line, it is probably won’t be enough to create a healthy environment.

This week is actually a good place to start with this reality check, acknowledging the fact that Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket campaign was an exception, not the rule, and probably for a long time will not be the rule.

It’s also a good time for business to start thinking how to contribute to the processes that seem to be making a difference, from lobbying and supporting the right policies (not this one), to promoting sharing economy ideas that embed social innovation practices, to helping sustainable citizenship movements that work on systemic solutions.

As Paul Polman once said, “Business has a hard time succeeding in societies that fail.” He’s definitely right, but to better society we need the right medicine, and right now it does not seem to be sustainable consumption.

[Image credit: Erie Rising, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • Maja Todorovic

    Recently I read one quote that I liked very much:”People are not buying things, they join things”. I think that there is a lot of truth in that small sentence and we should never underestimate the power of communities. They have real power to make a needed systematic change on every level, rather then hope that some random acts of behavioral change will make a real difference.

  • jottman

    Raz, love how you get out there and really try to stir the pot! I don’t think it’s an either – or proposition, though you make a good case that more effective solutions will come from the policy side. Perhaps the policy side should try to address sustainable consumption? With consumers representing two-thirds of economy, isn’t that the ‘beast’ businesses keep needing to feed?