2013-08-20

Co.Exist

Can Sustainable Consumerism Work?

Critics of sustainable certification and labeling programs often have fair points, but they miss the bigger picture. Study after study is showing how green consumers are making a difference.

As market shares of “green” products grow, so does debate about their true impacts. Certification and labeling of environmentally and socially sustainable goods have exploded in the last 10 years, coinciding with hotter, more extreme weather, continued deforestation and biodiversity loss, and accelerated depletion of many natural resources.

So it’s fair to ask, is green consumerism working? The idea that we can consume our way to sustainability as long as the label says it's “green” has deservedly been lampooned for years. More recently, the questioning is getting more serious and soul-searching, because environmentalists themselves are often the ones doing the asking.

“Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within,” writes Pop!Tech’s Andrew Zolli. The Worldwatch Institute report, “Is Sustainability Still Possible?" asks “with so much labeled as ‘sustainable’ … is it time to abandon the concept altogether, or can we find an accurate way to measure [it]?” Greenpeace is publishing case studies to examine whether the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council--which it helped found--are getting “watered down” as the program grows. Environmental scientist Maurie Cohen, co-founder of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative, categorizes certification, eco-labeling, and consumer education as ‘weak’ sustainable consumption. They “all tend to induce rebound effects and other perverse outcomes," he says.

Such critiques are generally thoughtful, and the questioning is healthy. Some of them, like Greenpeace’s scrutiny of FSC, clearly aim to improve performance. And new conceptual frameworks related to ideas about resilience and “post-consumerism” are all to the good. Critics are right to expose and decry greenwashing, and to point out that self-professed corporate sustainability is no guarantee of real-world impact (one study found that 86% of companies surveyed reported compliance with key sustainability criteria, while only 11% actually met them). They are also right to point out certification is no panacea for workers. It needs to be accompanied by broad government policy changes to address issues like minimum wage and child labor, but those changes don’t seem to be forthcoming.

To conclude from these critiques, however, that sustainable consumerism is “weak” or doesn’t work would be a colossal mistake. Independent, accredited certification programs are scaling up sustainable practices worldwide and demonstrating huge benefits for the environment, workers, and communities. So why do critics often ignore them?

Perhaps it’s because it’s such a specialized branch of knowledge. If you haven’t spent the last 20 years inspecting farms and forests throughout the tropics, you’re unlikely to know how bananas were grown or what coffee farmers did with their waste in the early 1990s, so you can’t appreciate the transformation that certification has accomplished since then.

Academic and policy studies tend naturally to focus on macro indicators and prescriptions, rather than grapple with actual practices and impacts on millions of acres of farms and forests in a hundred countries. The 2011 study “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet” brilliantly makes the macro case that to meet rising global food demand, we’ll have to raise yields dramatically on existing cropland without clearing more forests. But it ignores the fact that independent programs, like Rainforest Alliance Certified agriculture, have been doing exactly that on many thousands of farms for many years, and have made significant, measurable progress towards the goal.

Gathering and aggregating data from all those far-flung farms and forests is difficult, expensive and takes years. Research results are slow in coming, and the field hasn’t made a priority of synthesizing and communicating them. But that’s starting to change.

A growing body of accredited studies reveals enormous differences between certified operations and non-certified ones. Certified operations have double and higher rates of protecting wildlife and habitats, including in mega-diverse hotspots. They dramatically reduce harmful impacts and dramatically improve the lives of workers, families and communities. They’re providing sustainable livelihoods in some of the world’s poorest countries and achieving life-changing increases in yields and incomes using sustainable methods.

This research is publicly available: There’s a 2012 roundup of some of it here. More is emerging all the time, like these newly published studies showing that Colombia’s 2,100 certified coffee farms shelter endangered species, have higher biodiversity and healthier streams, net higher revenue, and are twice as productive as non-certified farms. If you’re ever stung by the accusation that drinking certified coffee eases consumer guilt without helping the planet or the farmers, facts like these are good to have.

No standard or certification system is perfect--in fact, by design they are iterative programs that require constant learning and improvement from producers and certifiers alike. But there’s abundant evidence that despite some bad actors or self-serving programs, consumers who choose certified products and services are making a huge difference. They’re the reason smallholding farmers worldwide are rapidly adopting sustainable practices, and why industry giants are eliminating deforestation and other harms from their global supply chains.

Skepticism is healthy, but don’t doubt the power of consumers to drive positive, scalable environmental and social impacts. It’s one of the few things that does.

[Image: Texture via Shutterstock]

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8 Comments

  • bobreddy

    My concern is not with the word “sustainability,” but with the word – and all its derivatives – “consumerism.”  It represents a world view that human beings are entities defined by the fact that they consume. With materialism driving such a world view, all efforts to transform behaviors at the personal, corporate, or international level will only reach so far, and will always be degraded in favor of short-term material gain over long-term balance, widely distributed justice, and a prosperous stewardship of the planet's wonders and resources. So dump the notion of consumer and consumerism.  We are more than intelligent cattle to be influenced, trained, and managed. The highlights of humanity's past have amply demonstrated that - ranking above our material needs – we are creatures of knowledge, love, and justice. Whatever movement taps into these realities will ultimately move us forward more comprehensively.

  • bobreddy

    My concern is not with the word “sustainability,” but with the word – and all its derivatives – “consumerism.”  It represents a world view that human beings are entities defined by the fact that they consume. With materialism driving such a world view, all efforts to transform behaviors at the personal, corporate, or international level will only reach so far, and will always be degraded in favor of short-term material gain over long-term balance, widely distributed justice, and a prosperous stewardship of the planet's wonders and resources. So dump the notion of consumer and consumerism.  We are more than intelligent cattle to be influenced, trained, and managed. The highlights of humanity's past have amply demonstrated that - ranking above our material needs – we are creatures of knowledge, love, and justice. Whatever movement taps into these realities will ultimately move us forward more comprehensively.

  • bobreddy

    My concern is not with the word “sustainability,” but with the word – and all its derivatives – “consumerism.”  It represents a world view that human beings are entities defined by the fact that they consume. With materialism driving such a world view, all efforts to transform behaviors at the personal, corporate, or international level will only reach so far, and will always be degraded in favor of short-term material gain over long-term balance, widely distributed justice, and a prosperous stewardship of the planet's wonders and resources. So dump the notion of consumer and consumerism.  We are more than intelligent cattle to be influenced, trained, and managed. The highlights of humanity's past have amply demonstrated that - ranking above our material needs – we are creatures of knowledge, love, and justice. Whatever movement taps into these realities will ultimately move us forward more comprehensively.

  • MTBkelly

         - You're absolutely right - you got me. You see, I was the person who got "paradigm shift" rolling in the '90s - I guess I'm just a little bitter that your "sustainability" has taken over. ;)

  • MTBkelly

    I'm hoping the word "sustainable" is not sustainable. It's the most overused, overdone word. 

  • classical858

    Do you have an explanation of your comment or are you just being overly negative? Until we have a great more compliance, there should be an increase in the use of the word, "sustainable". I hate it when people say the word "sustainability" is over used. That's the mantra of people that can't commit to a concept. In fact, most people do not understand the concept of sustainability and sustainable development. 

  • classical858

    Do you have an explanation of your comment or are you just being overly negative? Until we have a great more compliance, there should be an increase in the use of the word, "sustainable". I hate it when people say the word "sustainability" is over used. That's the mantra of people that can't commit to a concept. In fact, most people do not understand the concept of sustainability and sustainable development. 

  • Anthony Reardon

    This is profound, Tensie. Thanks for sharing.

    I think at the root of this are challenges that can be overcome by taking a look at things from a different perspective.

    This issue of "who certifies the certifiers" for instance is a great starting point. I realize that breaking through a world of objection complexity is best served by simple solutions- such as the idea of a certification process or certification mark. Yet, that advantage is just as easily leveraged by non-profits and for profits alike. So it becomes a matter of credibility- which is ironic because it is a system of credibility.

    As the certifying authority, it is a good thing to look within to your own standards and make sure they deliver against the criticisms. You do well to elaborate on the actual results that come with certification. However, right there, you can see the shift on focus to social authority- consumers or end-users.

    So, in a nutshell, the very thing you achieve with a simplified system that can gain traction for both your own organization and partnering companies can counter-act the full potential of what you are trying to accomplish. It is a phenomena that has been proven time and again across all kinds of systems- where a breakthrough would not have been possible or likely if someone didn't first do all the hard work to gain a foothold, but that nonetheless ends up being taken over by those who are able to just come in at the next step. You do have a decisive advantage though.

    In the same manner of cradle-to-grave accountability for waste streams- or from farm to cup if you prefer- you are talking about systems that proactively involve the entire supply chain through to the value received by consumers. This, in itself, is a fundamentally innovative dynamic of modern business, and it remains debatable. For instance, we've been talking about how people will still buy products perhaps on a basis of cost vs. working conditions enabled in countries where they are produced. However, as consumers become more sophisticated- perhaps considering their own brands and how the products they consume help to position them in their online social identities- the accountability becomes just as significant as any other factor of productivity in a business model, if not more.

    You could take the exact same kind of product produced in the same region, yet legitimately claim to do it in a better manner, and while the cost difference will be negligible, the competitive advantage can be severe. Plus, the level of engagement you create across the system builds relationships that can endure the disruptive influences of entirely financially driven forces. In other words, if you are first to plant, dig your roots in deep, and commit to taking care of people, then you get something money cannot as easily buy and that is long-term "loyalty".

    I think it needs to be a more paramount priority to extend those relationships and stories all the way through to the consumer. You can do that somewhat with a certification, minimal cooperation, and light marketing, but you can also do that way more with a more immersive engagement across all levels. In all actuality, extending that value all the way through to the social authorities at the most qualitative level possible is necessary for the system to get past the saturation of shallow adopters and fulfill it's full potential. I would agree that consumers do represent a power of demand precisely for that.

    Best, Anthony