Companies and sustainability advisors increasingly toss about the term "consumer behavior change." Often they're trying to describe a last mile of sustainability that a business can't reach alone. But what are they really talking about? Is the concept remotely realistic, or a jargon-driven cop-out?
1. The interest is not there
The vast majority of consumers remain largely indifferent to global environmental issues. The issues seem remote and intractable, and the divisions between greens on fundamental issues (GMO, nuclear power, certification systems, and so on) serve as one big turnoff.
Unilever has admitted struggling with this aspect of its sustainability journey — plenty of research shows that despite the occasional "spike" in interest (tuna during Hugh's FishFight campaign in Europe, climate change during the December floods in England), consumers expect governments and companies to make these decisions for them.
The only exception to this is the local action groups that spring up on a variety of issues when a community feels threatened by something (fracking and airport expansion being the obvious examples). Yet groups such as these do not form a global movement, let alone a national one.
Go out onto any street and show consumers the 50 or so ecolabels to be found on various products across our supermarkets. They may identify three and understand one. Even fewer will only ever buy products if they carry one label or other. Ask consumers about deforestation or pollination and you'll mostly get blank looks.
2. Consumers are not confined to industrialized nations
Even if (and it's a huge "if") affluent Western consumers could be persuaded to use their smart phone for longer, rent clothes, abandon flying, shower for less time and boycott products containing deforestation as a matter of principle, the cozy "behavior change" stuff of conferences, summits and western-inspired academic nonsense completely forgets the rest of the world, especially emerging market giants such as Indonesia, Brazil and India.
I often have written about this and will not rant on about it at length here. Simply travel to Jakarta, Mumbai, Sao Paolo or any comparable city and observe. The behavior change sought in these new powerhouses is largely about wanting more things, more often and more quickly. This is no surprise, and I am not saying whether that is good or bad. It"s the reality. A consumer behavior change effort that switched European customers' habits but left the billions in Asia untouched would be an utterly pointless wild goose chase.
3. The jargon isn't working
The "science" of consumer behavior change is shrouded in meaningless jargon, pseudo-academic architecture and is largely incomprehensible to anyone not in this niche and largely self-serving field. There are precious few examples of global shifts in consumption patterns (well, actually they're all rising), or of consumers switching away from brands they trust and like (Apple asserted its global dominance well before its recent green conversion — for years it was virtually impossible to find out anything about the company's sustainability policy). Yes, there will always be ethical brands and clever marketing. But global consumer behavior change to save the planet? Really.
4. It hasn't worked in politics
Politics can teach us something here. I cannot recall a general election in the last 15 years when a group of greens have not asserted confidently that they will mobilize public opinion to ensure that climate change becomes the dominant issue of the campaign and influences the mass population's voting decisions. It never happens, and I am not convinced it ever will.
If behavior "changists" cannot motivate people already politically interested enough to make electoral choices, why should they persuade people to use shampoo or pick a family holiday in a completely different way? Like politics, business will have to lead and then the public will follow. It is up to business to create new models, products and services that people want to buy. Some, of course, already are.
Does the failure of consumer behavior change matter?
I don"t think any of this actually matters. The imperatives for action are already there. The risks of climate change, resource scarcity, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and social inequality require politicians and business to wake up. They will have to manage these risks and they will act. It may well be too late.
But that's where campaigners should focus their efforts, not in wasting time and resource trying to mobilize a global public that may well follow, but will never lead the charge. To those who say that it is easier for business or government to move if a public movement is in place to create the political will or commercial incentive, I say good luck, but we can't afford to wait that long.