Power of Environmentally Conscious Shopping
Seventy percent of the American gross domestic product is driven by consumer spending. So if we are serious about advancing a more sustainable economy, consumers must shift their spending to products and services that are more environmentally responsible.
Unfortunately, there is a vast gap between Americans’ stated concerns about the environment and their actual purchases. American consumers are famously profligate, distracted and manipulated by billions of dollars of advertising.
Environmentally conscious purchasing is only 1 to 5 percent of the market, but is already making a difference
Efforts to educate and empower “conscious consumption” that would advance more environmentally friendly (and socially responsible) products are thus critical for aligning peoples’ values with their market actions; creating incentives for firms to change their products and supply chains; and moving people from simply consuming to working as citizens for broader reforms of the marketplace.
There are of course many examples of consumers buying “green-washed” and “eco-chic” products that make them feel better, but that aren’t actually better for the environment. (Would you like a bottle of Fiji water while you drive your new Chevy Tahoe hybrid?)
Nonetheless, environmentally conscious purchasing — which is still only 1 to 5 percent of the market — is actually making a difference. Recent growth in organic, local, fair trade, nontoxic, energy efficient, hybrid and sweat-free products are all testament to the potential of conscious consumers.
More central to this debate, growing consumer awareness, combined with campaigns by nonprofits, has proven capable of motivating major multinational corporations to change (often in the face of failed government regulation). Reputation-sensitive firms are being influenced by campaigns that often only have to invoke the threat of consumer action.
Today, for instance, the only real threat to Apple computer’s sales is not Dell, HP, Nokia or Research In Motion, but rather consumers connecting the company to environmentally and socially irresponsible behavior. This is the same threat the Nike brand faced in the late 1990s. And the one Wal-Mart fears, with a new generation of consumers who do not want to shop at a retailer connected to sweatshops, pollution and toxic products.
We are now seeing the emergence of a new kind of empowered citizen, armed with smartphone apps like GoodGuide.com (which I co-founded) that give them better information while they shop, connecting them to the people and groups they trust most, and enabling them to act on their values in the marketplace.
Connecting these consumers with thoughtful advocacy campaigns holds real potential to motivate companies and governments to implement smarter policies that prevent toxics, reduce carbon emissions, improve working conditions, etc. But individual acts of consumption alone are not going to solve our biggest environmental problems. We can’t shop our way to sustainability.
Helping people align their values in the marketplace can help them move from individual acts of consumption to broader collective reforms, and to participating in exactly the types of democratic processes that can lead to solving our environmental problems.