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Can consumers save our climate?

After Copenhagen, can market forces – and consumers in particular – help address global warming? John Elkington looks at the promises and pitfalls of “green” consumption.

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Many of the business and government leaders who gathered in Copenhagen for the United Nations climate talks believe that market forces in general—and consumers in particular—will drive the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s a comforting thought, but I wouldn’t count on it just yet. Having coined the term “green consumer” in 1986 and co-written the million-selling book, The Green Consumer Guide in 1988, I clearly believe in the effectiveness of well-targeted consumer action in tackling environmental issues—but I also fear that anything today’s green consumers may do will be swamped by the actions of hundreds of millions of tomorrow’s new consumers in the emerging markets, particularly in China.

As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent priority for all of us, governments clearly have a crucial, central role to play. But governments don’t operate in a vacuum. Every one of us will need to think – sooner or later – about how we can use the leverage we can apply in our multiple roles as citizens, employers or employees, investors and, critically, voters, not simply as consumers.

Yes, we have seen major retailers like Wal-Mart launching major new initiatives such as their Sustainability Index, designed to pressure suppliers throughout their value chain to “green” their operations. But I have often argued that consumers are – at best – the equivalent of “shock-troops”. That is, they can be mobilised for short periods of time, as they have been on issues like CFCs, lead in petrol or genetically modified foods, bringing intense pressure to bear on various leverage points in the economy. But for sustained action we need concerted, effective and long-term action by business, by investors and governments.

On the positive side, however, there is growing evidence that consumers around the world are paying more attention to environmental issues, including climate change. Earlier this year, for example, The National Geographic Society and Canada’s GlobeScan released the second annual “Greendex” of sustainable consumption patterns across 17 countries. And it was a fairly sophisticated piece of work. A total of 65 lifestyle choices of consumers are included in the index, covering areas as diverse as energy use, transportation, housing, food and product purchases.

The headline result was that “sustainable consumer behaviour” had increased in 13 of the 14 countries surveyed in both 2008 and 2009. Perhaps surprisingly, but repeating last year’s results, the top-scoring consumers of 2009 – at least according to this analysis – are in the emerging economies of India, Brazil and China. By contrast, US and Canadian consumers again scored lowest. To look at the results from a different angle, consumers reporting the best year-on-year improvement in “environmentally sustainable” consumer behaviour turn out to be the Spanish, Germans, French and Australians – while Russians, unsurprisingly, and Mexicans show the smallest increase. Intriguingly, Brazilians were the only consumers measured in both 2008 and 2009 to show a fall in their Greendex score.

So what’s behind all of this? Much of the increase in the overall 2009 Greendex scores was due to improvement in the area of housing, where the Greendex measures the energy and resources consumed by people’s homes. Changes in the areas of personal transportation, food and consumer goods proved to be more mixed, with some up, some down. The changes have been driven by a complex mix of cost concerns and environmental awareness.

Consumption as measured by the Greendex is calculated both in terms of the choices consumers actively make – such as repairing, rather than replacing items, using cold water to wash laundry, or choosing green products rather than environmentally unfriendly ones – and choices that are controlled more by their circumstances – such as the climate they live in or the availability of green products or public transport.

All very interesting, but if you were to ask me which recent green-consumer-related initiative has me most excited about the potential to drive future consumer pressure on climate-related issues, I would point you elsewhere. Recent weeks have seen the launch in the United States of a new application (“app”) that runs on Apple’s iPhone, which will allow users to scan products using a phone fitted with a barcode scanner. I have tried the system, which is available from GoodGuide and is free, and it is extraordinary in terms of how quickly it recognises and processes a given barcode.

The new app can help consumers to make on-the-spot decisions about a growing range of products as they walk around stores. They are fed user-friendly information, along with rankings across product categories. So, for example, it can help consumers to choose the healthier of two moisturisers, determine what’s in various all-purpose cleaners or learn whether organic product manufacturers can boast good social practices alongside with their healthy manufacturing processes. As GoodGuide explains: “Consumers can scan a barcode in the supermarket aisle and immediately see detailed and independently researched ratings for health, environment and social responsibility for over 50,000 products and companies on the phone.”

More powerful still, GoodGuide aggregates information about which products are scanned most frequently and use that information to prioritise the products that are rated in future rounds of research. No, I don’t believe that this product will solve all our climate problems, but I do believe that it will give us all a better sense of our environmental footprints, if we are interested enough to look beyond the packaging and the price-tag.

Whether our future turns out to be more globalisation or more localisation, and I think that we will see both trends playing out simultaneously, better-informed consumers have the potential to be important drivers of business and government action on climate change. A huge opportunity space is opening up to mobilise them in new ways. The unanswered question: will Chinese consumers be part of the problem or, in increasingly large numbers, part of the solution? It is no exaggeration to say the future of our world hangs on the answer.


John Elkington is co-founder of
SustainAbility and of Volans. His personal website is at http://www.johnelkington.com.

Homepage image from hudong.com

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

如果不能改变别人那么先改变自己

一个显而易见的现象就是消费者或公民个人付出的努力往往要比生产者和政府官员付出的多,改善气候条件是一个巨大的行动链条,是人类历史上为生存而共同努力的最大行动,但又是最难达成共识和分担责任的行动。
如果不能改变别人那么先改变自己,从自己做起……

If you can’t change others, then change yourself first

It is common for consumers or citizens to invest more effort than producers and government officials. Improving climate conditions is a huge operation with many connected parts; it requires the most cooperation for the survival of humanity in history. But this issue is also one of history’s most difficult issues on which to reach a consensus and for which to share responsibility. If you can’t change others then change yourself first. Change starts with you…

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关注少了,平均信息量多了

科学和技术让人们过度自信而且大大提升了平均信息量,因此全球变暖也是不可逆转的。此外,政治和政治家们战胜了科学和科学家。 《2012》不仅仅是一部电影,而相当于一个警告。因为人们越来越不关心自己的命运,地球的反应也就愈发激烈了。

Less concern, more entropy

Global warming is irreversible because the advance of science and technology help people overenjoy themselves and the advance of science and technology increase the rate of entropy rise. what is more is politics and politicians prevail over science and scientist. The film of 2012 is a warning rather than a film. The earth is getting furious because people don't care its fate.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

制作可靠的强制性条形码

一个有用的工具。

然而,鉴于中国不愿对其温室气体排放监测、报告和核查透明化,中国产品上的条形码是否可信则是个疑问。

如果中国消费者能提倡产品的条形码系统会是件很好的事。但等待中国的出口市场自愿要求提供这些信息,看起来还要很长一段时间

不过,如果能让条码变成强制性的(鉴于气候变化的紧迫性和严重性),中国将不得不为了提高竞争力而作出调整。

Making credible barcodes mandatory

A useful gadget.

However, given China's reluctance to be transparent concerning Monitoring Reporting and Verification over greenhouse gas emissions, will bar codes on products supplied from China be credible?

It would be good if consumers in China led the way in demanding credible information on products through bar code systems. Waiting for consumers in China's export markets voluntarily to demand such information is likely to take too much time.

However, if as should be the case, such bar coding were mandatory (reflecting the urgency and seriousness of climate change), China would have to adjust in order to compete.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Such technololgy would be very beneficial

Would such bar codes have stopped the recent milk scandals in China?

Perhaps not, but they would certainly inhibit the dangerously unethical practices involved, and change the assessment of risks and rewards by those who would perpertrate such practice.

The technology might - initially - be prohibitively expensive for small producers. However, because the great majority of products traded are supplied by enterprises large enough to be obliged to adopt that technology, small producers are largely irrelevant.

这种技术很有益

像这样的条形码技术能不能防止类似中国最近牛奶丑闻的发生?

或许不行,但他肯定可以抑制危险的不道德行为的发生。而对于行为,这种技术也让那些有可能触犯危机的人,再三衡量此类行为所造成的风险与回报。

或许起初,该技术因成本过于昂贵而不受小型生产者的欢迎。不过,由于交易产品绝大部分是由大型企业供给的,他们的重要性足以促成该技术的广泛应用,小商品生产者则可以暂时忽略。