Human Dimensions of Global Change/Sustainable Consumption, Canada
Published online Oct 15, 2010
Independent Researcher,Human Dimensions of Global Change/Sustainable Consumption,736A Queen Street East,Sault Ste Marie, Ontario P6A 2A9 Canada (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mired in the misty shroud of producer profligacy, identifying a more virtuous product can be a consumer nightmare. With more questions of legitimacy than websites that rate the virtuousness of products, new scientific findings, data gaps, discordant policy environments, and weak regulatory environments, virtuous product identification has become a moving target. At best, identifying a virtuous product might represent a weak endorsement of the marketplace to deliver green products, and the information superhighway to fill an information void with a viable service.
If Goleman is correct, this informational option will become much more practical, convenient, widely used, and accepted in the consumer decision-making process. More than just widely employed, Goleman asserts in his book Ecological Intelligence, that the use of life-cycle analysis (LCA) will simplify the process of virtuous consumer decision making at the point of sale to such an extent that it will drive virtuous production around the globe. Consumers can use their cell phones and computers to learn about a product’s rating details and make choices accordingly. That is encouraging, because at present there are very few consumers likely to pursue and identify a virtuous product, especially when success of finding such a product is so low and the effort required to get there so high.
Information—tremendous volumes of which are now available—can be used to compile, identify, assess, and rate a product’s impacts on the environment or society. Employing LCA for this purpose, and making the results available to the consumer at the point of purchase is, Goleman argues, the best approach to achieving a more sustainable planet. Goleman asserts that consumers would be able to, with a convenient rating system, match their values to products. Left unexplained is, with a wide diversity of values, how a comprehensive rating system would distill the vast amounts of—often conflicting—data to make sense to the consumer.
For the average consumer, however, this book will likely prove an eye-opener—to learn the tremendous number of steps, complex processes, chemical stews, and environmental, social, and health impacts involved in producing, using, and disposing of even the most mundane everyday-life purchases. It may even move some reader-consumers to demand better labeling and ‘”green” classification to help them make their purchase decisions a little easier. This trend is now evident, and certainly companies that learn to market their wares in accordance with these emerging value-laden consumer criteria (or for the cynical, adjust those criteria to match their production needs) will achieve a competitive advantage in the global marketplace. But will that advantage in and of itself, achieve a more sustainable planet?
Despite the examples Goleman employs to illustrate where producers have responded to consumer pressures to change their practices, the general assumption that consumers can have a significant influence on the decision-making architecture that defines our consumption and production practices remains ambiguous. Will consumers respond and avoid products, such as cars with faulty braking systems, or genuinely bypass unsustainable processes, such as resource extraction that fails to take necessary precautions with disastrous results when things go terribly wrong—or even more disastrous results when things unfold as intended?
Which raises a serious issue overlooked in this book: will shopping and consuming our way to ecological sustainability even be possible? It just does not seem plausible that another two billion consumers, each with a cacophony of electronic gadgets providing current information on the virtuousness of their next six-month upgrade purchase will offset the social reason for which they are replacing a perfectly operational gadget in the first place. As McManus (1996) suggested, these questions need to be debated to redefine consumerism “in ways not limited to the global management of contemporary capitalism in a green framework.”
That being said, Goleman has struck a very interesting chord, one that would have been instrumental were this debate explored. While LCA may prove essential in our complex world of global trade where the production and disposal of consumer artifacts are shaded and displaced from consumer decisions, will filling that information void answer the question of sufficiency?
Goleman touches, however fleetingly, on this essential debate: the market incentive for establishing a simple useable rating system of virtuousness. Where there is a profit motive, ratings cannot fully be trusted or, to use Goleman’s own term, radically transparent. Yet that same radical transparency fails to lift the shroud concealing this market incentive. As abruptly as this debate could begin, it evaporates, making the approach—one that assumes the need to consume without bounds and to plead the case for making that a more fully informed process—somehow arcane.
Of course humans will always be consumers, but one needs to question the level of that consumerism. This book does not. While it remains an important ingredient for a more sustainable planet, the volume’s discussion of LCA and its power to convey relative information on the sustainability of consumer choices would have been well served by including a discussion about the need for consumerism in the first place. How might we transform consumer-producer relationships that urge ever higher the levels of consumerism on our shrinking global planet, rather than alter existing relationships merely to deliver more green products?
Moreover, if LCA produces tremendous volumes of information that can be distilled down to the best products for various categories (social, environmental, and health, for instance), why not simplify the consumer process and list each product for each service available in the marketplace. Would that step not reinforce the shopping experience as the purely utilitarian process most economists currently believe it to be? To challenge that utilitarian process would undermine the value of objective virtuous information Goleman so desires. Why, then, not set market regulations at the level of virtuous products that meet the most rigorous criteria? With a sweep of the hand, Goleman discounts regulation as too cumbersome a process to achieve his radical transparency. It seems regulating products to match rigorous criteria opens the Pandora’s Box of values. Not so much what products consumers value, but how societies value the marketplace. Failure to include this rich discussion that informs a critical element of sustainable consumption is a serious oversight of the book.
Despite his desire for radical transparency, Goleman fails to explain why consumers would—or in fact do—trust a “green” claim. Consumers clamor for green products, despite the widespread practice of greenwashing affecting 98% of product green claims (TEM, 2009). This raises a provocative question: a green product may be something consumers want, but do they really want information that tells them the level of greenness? Yet perhaps more provocative: will producers act to provide more green products or simply engage in additional greenwashing to gain market share? Despite the fact that information exists cautioning consumers about green claims, product promotions continue to exceed performance, and consumers continue to exceed ecological and household debt levels in search of elusive green products. Information, it appears, can both serve and thwart virtuousness.
From the standpoint of sustainable consumption, establishing a better approach to assuage consumer guilt will bring little relief to the deluge of toxic consequences despite—or perhaps due to—an ever expanding deluge of virtuous products.
This book left me with more questions than answers, and questions that would prove stimulating to engage more widely. Even if a complex radical transparency is not forthcoming in the near future, Ecological Intelligence will hopefully serve a vital role by raising a range of questions essential to sustainable consumption.
Terrachoice Environmental Marketing (TEM). 2009. The Seven Sins of Greenwashing. Ottawa: TEM.
McManus, P. 1996. Contested terrains: politics, stories and the discourses of sustainability. Environmental Politics 5(1):48–73.
strong>Robert Rattle is an independent researcher and consultant. He studies and consults on various aspects of sustainable consumption and ecological integrity, focusing on institutional and societal mechanisms of consumption behavior, social determinants of health, Health Impact Assessment, and Internet and communication technologies.