Unsustainable consumption: let’s cut the junk and usher in a new age of eco innovation
- By Philip Monaghan -
- May 10, 2012
Philip Monaghan explains in this guest blog, the concept behind a report by Infrangilis, “Consumer Product Red List: Competitive Advantage by Decoupling Resource Misuse from Development.” Tell us what you think about this idea?
The statistics make bleak reading. The developed world has been living beyond its means for more than two decades. This is bad news for everyone, with the scramble for ever more resources resulting in higher food prices, loss of access to land or climate chaos. Efforts to control population growth in the developing world, reign in the spending patterns of affluent consumers, or technological advancements are all either politically contentious or insufficient to reverse consumption trends.
Altering the consumption patterns of both the wealthy and the poor in a socially just way to prevent the misuse of natural resources is one of several key approaches to reversing unsustainable living and create more resilient societies.
To be effective within a complex system though, national-level supply side interventions must be made. Doing this will require leaders with the moral courage to think the unthinkable - decoupling the use of environmental resources from growth. This is where a “Consumer Product Red List” will play a game changing role. Promoting eco-friendly consumer products alone will not solve the problem of unhelpful consumer decision-making. Choice editing - whereby the number of unhelpful consumer purchasing options are reduced - is often cited as one panacea, but historically national governments have been reluctant to remove consumer choice.
Instead it is argued that it is better to educate customers and industries alike through better product labelling and complimentary information campaigns. However, decades of such information-based policy approaches have at best slowed the march to market failure and at worst added to the delusion that we are on the path to recovery.
Yet, paradoxically, there are notable examples of corporations taking a different route to those who argue against choice editing. The U.S. apparel retailer Patagonia operates a ‘buy less’ approach that shows its customers how to repair or recycle and, ultimately, sell them on to others, so the life of their products is extended. Another such example from the U.K. is The John Lewis Partnership - a leading retailer - which only stocks fish and furniture that have been certified as sustainably sourced.
Why so? These forward thinking companies believe that by decoupling misuse of natural resources from development gives them a competitive advantage in the marketplace, be it in terms of brand differentiation, customer loyalty or through future proofing against legislative changes such as punitive carbon taxes on resource flows.
Based on the success of a ‘red list’ for controlling trade in hazardous chemicals (established by the Basel Convention in 1989) and another for prioritizing conservation efforts on the most threatened species (initiated by the IUCN in 1963), Infrangilis’ research proposes the development of a “Consumer Product Red List” that would comprise of a traffic light warning system to inform and guide more responsible consumption internationally.
A high level global list, it will then be used to shape more detailed national level lists that would allow increased awareness of ‘positive’ products, encourage the ‘retirement’ of more harmful products and support innovative product development (noting that each country will have different contexts in terms of consumer laws and public awareness, etc).
A key element of the list would be that products are assessed along economic as well as social and environmental aspects, mapping their contribution to well-being against the stewardship of natural resources. This allows consumers to avoid the purchase of a consumer product whose marketing outstrips the product’s usefulness, where that product that has built-in obsolescence.
The primary output would be a user-friendly and web-based tool, informed by a combination of using existing data sets on product impacts and expert opinions. It would feed into the latest technological innovations to inform customers in real time whilst they shop, such as the advent of mobile phone apps that promise instant in-store details of a product’s sustainability credentials.
To help this become a reality however, governments needs to do more to help companies like Patagonia and John Lewis Partnership go further. This begins with an appreciation that national supply-side interventions can be good for business. By recalibrating aspects of the current industrial model in this way it would boost economic competitiveness and enhances national resilience.
To find out more about the Consumer Product Red List visit www.infrangilis.org/publications to download the free report or follow @Infrangilis_ltd.
Image by Gary Knight
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