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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.

[Image: Texture via Shutterstock]

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.