Surveys show consumers are buying better, Nordic report busts myth that we can consume our way to sustainability
Two surveys released recently seem to indicate that consumers are caring more about the ethics and sustainability of their purchases. But the reports leave us square in the middle of the debate about whether it is possible to consume our way to sustainable resource use. The Nordic Council of Governments says it’s not possible and highlights 10 myths about sustainable consumption (read on for the list of 10).
The surveys could help designers make a stronger case to an as-yet unresponsive management that markets are growing for ethical, sustainable, or resilient design. Ideally designers can take the myth busting report to a responsive management and highlight how these myths keep the organization focused on the wrong questions. Let’s think about the right questions below at the end.
Triple Pundit reports on a new Index that profiles an emerging consumer group, “the Aspirationals,” powered by young and optimistic consumers who are, “materialistically oriented while at the same time aspiring to be sustainable in their purchases and beliefs.”
A survey of 21,000 participants in 21 international markets by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility finds that about 36% of consumers are aspirationals. They’re young but also urban and present across many developing markets such as India, Pakistan, and China, as well as developed markets like North America and Australia. Specifically they are excited about shopping for new things but believe we need to “consume less.” Hmmm.
Meanwhile PR firm Cone Communications has surveyed US consumers and found that purchases of products associated with a cause are up by 170% since 1993. That report found that
Hispanic-Americans were the most socially engaged consumers, being not only more likely than the general population to buy cause-related products but also to donate, volunteer and advocate on behalf of companies as they sought to build a better life for their families and communities.”
African Americans and Millenials are also behind the uptick in cause-related purchases.
The false picture painted by the growth in market segments
Triple Pundit points out, as do I in the book Architecture & Design versus Consumerism, that although there may be huge growth in ethical or sustainable purchasing, their share of the market is still tiny. They get press attention because of the growth rate!
For example, I reported that in the US, organic food makes up only about 4% of the market. Fair trade products are also estimated at about 4% of the market and only about 1% of passenger cars are hybrids. These and other elements of ethical or sustainable consumption are very far from becoming norms.
And ultimately, greening consumption does not provide a solid solution to patterns of over-consumption—even if it could become the norm. The myth of “greening consumption” through circular economies or closed loop systems is busted in a new report for the Nordic Council of Governments, “Improving Nordic policymaking by dispelling myths on sustainable consumption” (written by Oksana Mont, Eva Heiskanen, Kate Power and Helka Kuusi)
Here are the myths in a nutshell.
Myth 1: Green consumption is the solution
Myth 2: Consumers should lead the shift to sustainability
Myth 3: If everyone does a little we will achieve a lot
Myth 4: Small and easy environmental actions will spill-over to bigger changes
Myth 5: More information leads to sustainable behaviour
Myth 6: Appealing to people’s self-interest is the path to sustainable behaviour
Myth 7: Sustainability means “living in caves”
Myth 8: People become happier if they gain more money and increase material levels of consumption
Myth 9: Private ownership of all kinds of products is desirable – sharing is not
Myth 10: Consumption policies are too controversial to be accepted by the public
The right questions that designers can help put on the table.
- Are we asking people to do enough? If we’re calling them Aspirationals, let’s really stretch them!
- What progressive policies can we support to take the burden off “green consumers”? Early examples where designers are involved include energy efficiency ratings for appliances and green building rating systems. Where are these going next and what sectors need to introduce them? Let’s push on these a lot harder.
- Where do we have scope to participate in a cooperative or sharing economy and do we have the service design skills we might need for that? Can we actually pursue some revenue-neutral activities within our organization, or does this mean partnering with other types of organizations or starting a “sister” organization?
What would you add or subtract from this list? Or is your organization part of the large majority that is only at the first baby steps of greening consumption? Let us know in the comments and please share this post.