Sustainable Consumption: We Will If You Will, Say Consumers

Sustainable Consumption: We Will If You Will, Say Consumers

Consumers and business both want government to do more to make it easier for them to be green, says a recent U.K. government report.

"I will if you will, Towards Sustainable Consumption" - has analyzed a series of focus groups with citizens and business and looked at the history of how green products are produced and sold.

Alan Knight, co-chair of the UK's Sustainable Consumption Roundtable, a joint research venture between the National Consumer Council and the UK's Sustainable Development Commission, offered his interpretation of its findings at a recent Ethical Corporation conference.

Overall, Knight told the conference, consumers said it was not easy enough to live a sustainable lifestyle, and feel they need help to do so. Meanwhile business told the researchers that "we’ll do more if it’s easier".

This “brings up the need for legislation” to support such activities, said Knight. The report’s researchers have come up with suggestions for government.

Make more noise about it

Consumers and business want more information on what the report authors call “the space for change”. Essentially, said Knight, they commented that the context, case and need for sustainable consumption was not being made clearly enough.

This is best summarized as if those surveyed were saying “if it’s that bad ... we do not understand why our governments are not doing more to drive change”.

The report researchers found that consumers and business wanted it to be made easier to live and act in a sustainable manner.

In the UK, homes, transport, food and holidays account for some 80% of environmental impacts. The suggestion? For policy makers to focus on pragmatism rather than processes or systems and to simply “build policy around product”.

The report concludes that governments cannot simply put the burden of sustainable buying practices on green consumers, but must get involved in offering what Knight called “product roadmaps” with regard to sustainability.

Knight cited the development and success of the Forest Stewardship Council as an example of success.

“[Government] Interventions do make a huge difference” when it comes to sustainable products, said Knight, pointing to another example of where government action has tweaked a market to improve sustainability - energy labels on EU white goods.

This mandated labelling of European items such as washing machines and dishwashers as A to E grade on energy use allowed consumers and retailers to drive demand for environmentally friendly goods.

Talk about the big picture

Another of the report’s findings was the importance of demonstrating to consumers the bigger environmental picture, and how they can individually make a difference.

An example of this would be persuading consumers to offset their carbon emissions when buying an airline ticket but making customers actively opt out of offsetting their emissions rather than opting in.

Other ways of showing consumers the bigger environmental and energy picture includes encouraging the use of micro power generation in new build homes, Knight said.

This is something that is being done by London’s maverick leftist mayor, Ken Livingstone, in some new build projects around London, one of which is being promoted with Greenpeace.

In terms of moving from corporate social responsibility towards sustainable development Knight was forthright in his calls for both a paradigm shift in business and less focus on process and more on issues around the sustainability agenda.

Knight predicts a major future focus on “product stories” based around sustainable products and lifecycles, with an increased societal focus on life satisfaction, well-being and happiness, echoing UK Conservative leader David Cameron’s recent public comments on the subject.

In conclusion, said Knight, the primary role of business and government on sustainability issues is to “make it a lot easier for consumers than it currently is”, to be green through smart market inventions. It’s a shame no-one from government bothers to attend such conferences.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Ethical Corporation magazine.