Environmentally Friendly: consumer vs regulatory responsibility

The other day my mum sent me an interesting article from the Guardian, titled “If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer“, written by the author of “Wildling: The Return of Nature to a British Farm”. It’s a fascinating article and worth the read. Whilst I’m no expert in that field, it exudes the allure of a common-sense argument.

However, it made me think about the burden of responsibility with regard to the choices we make as consumers. How often do you hear people saying you need to be more responsible with your buying choices?

Voting with your wallet

We’ve all heard the expression “vote with your wallet”. Avoid products which are unethically produced or bad for the environment. However I have long pondered the efficacy of this approach. Most consumers are going to struggle to find out where their product or its component parts came from. It will be even harder to know whether the product or its parts are harming the environment or not.

Ultimately I feel that meaningful change needs to come from a regulatory approach, for example:

  1. tax the harmful products;
  2. subsidise the less-impactful approaches;
  3. or regulate it such that environmentally friendly production is the only option (like the recent EU ban on bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides).

If you have someone polluting a river at its source, which is a more effective solution?

  1. Get everyone along the river’s course to buy water filters and clean their water before drinking it.
  2. Stop the pollution at the source.

If you chose number 2 as the answer, congratulations, you get a gold star.

The complexity of making informed decisions

Now please take note, I’m not saying consumers should stop being mindful of their choices, and to vote with your wallet where possible. If a consumer sees an obvious choice between a positive and negative action, they should take the positive action.

I just question usefulness of spending a huge amount of time and effort educating the public about how to source ethical, sustainable, and environmentally friendly products. Ultimately it feels like swimming against the tide.

Producers flooding the market with lower cost, heavily marketed, but ethically or environmentally dubious products limits the impact of that education.

It is a waste of time to asking people to only buy correctly sourced products. How many products do we buy every week? Can we reliably confirm that those products are produced in the least impactful way? Can we know, for certain, that some harm isn’t being caused by some producer in the chain?

A interesting read on this topic is: “How Bogus ‘Eco-Friendly’ Products Trick You“. They discuss the concept of regulated eco-labels, but also how problematic such an approach could be:

Chief among those issues is what factors to include when scoring a product’s sustainability: water use, carbon output, smog, water pollution, resource consumption, energy efficiency, recyclability, biodegradability—the list goes on. Should ethical considerations be included? Scoring something like a computer, whose hundreds of components all have completely different sources and lifecycles, poses a technical nightmare.

Did nutrition labelling educate consumers about their food? Given the ever-increasing size of the obesity epidemic, the efficacy of labelling helping consumers make an informed decision must be called into question.

The Plastic Bag Tax

Whilst it’s probably over simplifying the issue, the concept of a plastic bag tax is a good example in my mind.

Prior to taxation of single-use plastic bags, some consumers were mindful of the negative environmental impact and brought their own reusable bags when shopping. However the vast majority of consumers took the convenient, free option of taking as many plastic bags as they needed.

As soon as that choice involved a cost to the consumer though, people changed their behaviour.

And of course, why did governments not completely ban plastic bags? This is happening now, but it has been a slow process.

Where to focus our energies?

Instead of driving people to be better consumers, it is better to push them to demand legislation that curbs negative practices. It must become an election issue. Political parties must realise that power cannot be attained without strong ethical and environmental policies. Additionally we should curb business lobbying. The pursuit of short-term profit is the motivator, not the long-term improvement of our society.

And whilst I’m aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s more complex and multi-layered than that, and governments are nervous of driving away manufacturers (who then move to less-regulated countries and inflict environmental harm). But ultimately without regulation, the bottom line will win out.

Further to this, even with regulation, some companies will try to find loopholes, meaning that the regulation has to be even stricter.

I’m not suggesting that governments and regulations aren’t without their problems. It would be difficult to control and mandate responsible practices at every level of a product chain. But I do think that the focus for our energies should be on fixing the problems at the source.

The neo-liberal concept that consumers will force companies (voting with their wallet) to to make the right choices in order to stay competitive is ultimately flawed. Just in the same way that financial deregulation has shown, disastrously, time and time again, that service providers do not meaningfully self-regulate. The market does not self-correct. It spirals out of control.

One last thought…

You could say that the root cause of all of this ultimately comes from the pursuit of permanent growth; eternally-increasing profits. It seems that companies which just maintain profitability, but do not show continued growth, get crucified by the financial markets.

The market does not reward a ship on a comfortable course taking care of its passengers and those around it.

For a good neo-liberal rant, check out @a4sounds on twitter.