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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New Mindset Needed: Sustainability for Shoppers

This is my column first published by Environmental Management News on Monday, 16 May 2011

Getting better environmental performance from ‘the stuff we buy’ is defined by the wrong things - Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict - rather than getting the best outcomes for people and planet, while leaving business plenty of space for profits too. It’s little wonder that even green-savvy shoppers and householders can get confused, writes Murray Hogarth.

I’m going to argue the case here for a national focus on what I’m calling ‘consumer environmental literacy’, or more pithily, sustainability for shoppers. It is years ago now that we started to pay serious attention to financial literacy for consumers. Just as the world of banking, insurance, superannuation, taxation and investment advice, and other ‘wealth management’ services simultaneously became more ubiquitous and more complex, so goes the fast expanding ‘green marketplace’.

In 2011, ‘environment’ is well down a similar path to financial products and services. Everyday punters are being called on to make purchasing decisions that are affected by all manner of label claims and purported certifications, that are governed by complex concepts like life cycle assessments and environmental foot-printing, and that require difficult calculations such as total cost of ownership, balancing purchase price with operating costs and sometimes disposal fees as well.

Whether it’s understanding the recycling information on a packet or container, or the energy bill implications of choosing particular appliances or vehicles, or the environmental consequences of the care instructions for clothing, what people buy and how they use it then dispose of it are critical issues for achieving a more sustainable economy.

There are also some nasty curved balls coming the way of industry and environmentalists alike. A prime example is waste collection, where decades of community engagement have created a cultural shift in Australia towards home sorting for recycling. Survey after survey shows Australians ranking their own recycling participation as top of the league table for environmental action. Now, however, global best practice is trending towards one or two bins at most – wet and dry waste if it is two – with industrial sorting at big centralised processing facilities. What are we going to tell all those happy home sorters?

That’s one of many tough challenges ahead. Firstly, however, let’s indulge ourselves in a pleasant little fiction. Let’s pretend we have the opportunity to build anew the key ‘sustainability’ interfaces between manufacturers and brand owners on one side, and consumers and their communities on the other, in regard to the stuff that people buy.

Our aim, in this delightful fantasy, is to maximise the sustainability outcomes around both packaging and the products themselves. Everyone involved, from industry through to environmental watchdogs, is broadly in agreement on the big issues, all wanting to minimise waste and maximise recycling, save energy and water, use less non renewable materials and more renewable energy, cut pollution, and do all of this in an efficient and cost-effective way. We just have to get consensus on how to do it!

Then we get dragged back to current reality. Over several decades we’ve built up a nightmare mess of regulation and voluntary measures governing the way that ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are integrated with products, and increasingly services too. The result is an emerging ‘green marketplace’ that is messily confusing, often poorly understood by the producers and the customers alike, and dysfunctional.

That’s not surprising, because our foundations for this new edifice are all wrong. Instead of three pillars of support representing Environment, Social and Economic best outcomes, we’ve ended up with Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict:
  • Compulsion, in that businesses, many of them reluctant at least in earlier times to act at all, have been compelled through an escalating series of regulatory, co-regulatory and arm-twisted self-regulatory measures to change their ways and clean up their act;
  • Suspicion, in that almost whatever industry has done, and however willing or otherwise they’ve been to do it, doubt will often be cast over both the motivations and actual performance of businesses. And while many allegations of greenwashing are well deserved, suspicion has been cast across everyone and everything;
  • Conflict, in that often change and action only comes about after serious head butting between brand owners and green watchdogs, such as environment and consumer advocacy groups. We’ve still got plenty of that going on, for example in regard to the green movement push for South Australian-style container deposits legislation to be spread nationally, which has been bitterly opposed for decades by most beverage makers and other industry players across manufacturing and retail.
Recently, the Total Environment Centre’s (TEC) business sustainability program Green Capital teamed up with the 1 Million Women climate action campaign to conduct consumer research. This involved an online survey as part of the Buying Better initiative, a major Green Capital project focused on breaking down barriers to a more sustainable economy, including widespread confusion over labeling and certification schemes.

The aim was to poll a target audience of environmentally engaged consumers, the all-female membership of the 1 Million Women campaign, with women making over 70% of purchasing decisions that affect household environmental footprint, and influencing up to 90% of such decisions.

There were over 370 respondents to the survey. Key findings included:
  • While over 9 out of 10 respondents said they looked out for environmental information on products, and nearly 8 out of 10 agreed they would pay more for ‘genuinely green’ products, nearly 7 out of 10 found environmental claims on labels difficult to understand;
  • Respondents tended to significantly underestimate how much of the negative environmental impact in the life cycle of key mainstream products – the survey looked at TVs, fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, laundry detergent, washing machines and printer paper – arises while being used by them, the consumers;
  • A number of major ‘green, ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainability’ labels had low recognition with the respondents, with the notable exceptions of ‘Fairtrade’ and ‘Energy Star’ enjoying high positive recognition;and
  • Respondents showed overwhelming support for supermarkets and other retailers to proactively stock and promote more sustainable products and de-stock the most unsustainable ones, but there was a pocket of concern about retailers creating their own ‘green labels’.
To me, the debate indicates that even a moderately engaged and green-savvy sample of consumers struggled to weigh life cycle issues correctly, tended overall to underestimate the importance of their own purchasing decisions and how they use products, and in particular were heavily swayed by current or recent major environmental campaigns focused on issues such as:
  • Clothing and textiles – ethical production, no ‘sweatshops’;
  • TVs – e-waste campaigns around disposal of electronics items; and
  • Fruit and vegetables – the ‘food miles’ concept.
You can see from a chart, which can be viewed by clicking here, that such issues have dominated responses in the survey, even though other parts of the life cycle may be as important or more so for overall negative environmental footprint e.g. food wastage by consumers themselves, power consumption during the life of a TV and laundering of clothing.

The message is clear. Everyone with a stake in the greening of the mainstream economy needs to grow up a bit, get over old and increasingly irrelevant divisions, and get on with making effective consumer decision-making easier, regardless of the complexities that will always exist in the background. We need to rise above Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict and get everyone on board – along the value chain, and across the life cycle of every product area - for real solutions that address the most material issues.

By framing this as a challenge to foster consumer environmental literacy as a national priority, we can then identify roles and assign responsibilities for all of the key players, be they government policymakers, official regulators, primary producers, manufacturers and brand owners, marketers, retailers, consumers themselves, NGO watchdogs, or post-consumer enterprises.

And rather than demanding environmental perfection to satisfy the deepest of lifelong deep green consumers, a niche market now and into the future, we need to choose the right buttons to press with mass consumers e.g. saving energy and reducing waste = saving money while you help the environment.

It is time to make sustainability easy for shoppers, achievable for brand owners, and acceptable to environmental and consumer advocates. Everyone has a part to play. Done right, the pay-off will span the three pillars of Environment, Social and Economic, condemning Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict to exit stage left, fading to greener and smarter.

Murray Hogarth is a business environmentalist, advising corporate and community clients on sustainability strategy through his consultancy The 3rd Degree. He is Senior Adviser to Green Capital, the business sustainability arm of the TEC in Sydney, and is a regular writer and commentator on sustainability issues and trends. His views in this column are his own.

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