I honestly can't remember when I last heard anybody argue that the sustainability revolution we so urgently need will be driven primarily by consumers.
There have been times when such a view was strongly favoured, going right back to that original classic, The Green Consumer, by John Elkington and Julia Hailes in 1988. That particular surge of consumer interest in all things green fizzled out ingloriously a few years later, and every subsequent resurrection seems paler and paler by comparison.
So where does the consumer fit in when it comes to analysing the potential for change? For a start, we’ve pretty much given up on our politicians doing anything substantial about today’s converging sustainability crises. It seems they’ll only act when they’re ‘given permission’ to act by others: by the private sector, for instance, or, occasionally, by voters. Worse yet, we’ve completely given up on investors, as they’ve proved themselves incapable of doing anything other than sticking to their short-term profit-maximisation story.
The NGOs are still doing good stuff, but with much less traction than we would all like to see and, though we haven’t exactly given up on the voters, in the round you would have to say they don’t seem to be particularly engaged! Which is why such a huge burden of responsibility now sits on the shoulders of leading companies – and why this seems to be the only place where real leadership can currently be detected.
Not that they’re acting on their own. They still depend on government not to screw up (in terms of bad regulation, inconsistent incentivisation and so on), and indeed they depend on their investors not taking fright. But, from personal experience, I know that they have very low expectations of both – as they do of their consumers. Recent years have taken the shine off the idea of ‘green consumerism’. Every survey that purports to demonstrate significant levels of consumer concern is automatically discounted by companies because of the yawning ‘say–do gap’: we talk green, but we buy brown.
A minority of consumers stay loyal to organic food and fair trade products and, outside of the UK, numbers have actually been growing over the last few years – despite the economic recession.
But any hope that more sustainable products might command a premium evaporated years ago. The vast majority of consumers are astonished at the idea that cheap is often synonymous with destructive, unhealthy, irresponsible and cruel. And the sad truth of it is that a disturbingly large percentage of UK consumers are either too lazy or too indifferent to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.
You’ll not hear any of our corporate partners express such heretical views. They never do it in public, and only very rarely in private. And you’ll not hear any of the campaigning NGOs express such views either. They love beating up on the corporates, but they won’t beat up on the consumers who support those corporates in their unsustainable ways. Too many of them could be members, or prospective members…
All you hear about today is what companies can do to ‘enable’ or ‘empower’ their consumers – in terms of product innovation, reducing risk in the supply chain, increased transparency, ‘doing the right thing’ and so on. Ok, I exaggerate to make a point. It is of course brilliant that fair trade, organic and niche ethical brands continue to thrive in these troubled times. But there is something worrying about the current state of play.
Not so long ago the prevailing view was that governments would sort it out on our behalf – poor, deluded fools that we were! Now we’ve transferred that semi-detached dependency onto the corporate world, indeed onto the very multinationals we once looked to governments to regulate the hell out of! We’ve moved from one illusory comfort blanket to another – this one market-friendly, seductively branded, and reassuringly undemanding. From Nanny State to Nanny Corp – ‘editing our choices’, doing the heavy lifting on water, carbon or waste, refurbishing that yellow brick road to the land of notionally sustainable consumption…
This is a funny one for us to get our heads around. Forum for the Future spends every waking moment urging companies to do more. And more. Given the economic backdrop, what today’s leading companies are doing – with no support from governments, near zero interest from investors, and very little limited affirmation from mainstream consumers – occasionally borders on the astonishing. And you know what? That’s simply not sustainable.
Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.