|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:
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:
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.