Today’s forum on ‘Green Lifestyles and the Powers of Consumers’ was the most engaging of the 2-day conference: The Great Transformation – Greening the Economy. The panel, including the Executive Director of the Forest Stewardship Council Andre de Freitas and a well-known member of the German parliament, discussed the extent to which people’s buying habits can change unsustainable production.
As soon as you talk about what we eat, wear and use, and where it comes from, people tend to take notice and want to have their say. The audience was keen to know how they could change their buying habits in the name of a better world.
Yet, consumers’ (or citizens’ as many prefer) preferences to be green are undermined by an over-supply of information and an under-supply of time. There are several surveys out there that indicate that people would like to buy products that are more sustainable, organic or fair-trade. But, as illustrated by this recent one in Britain for sustainable seafood cleverly entitled ‘The Which?‘, people are bombarded by confusing labels.
Furthermore, every type of product e.g. seafood, coffee, timber has different certification and labeling standards meaning that you need to recognise many organisations and ratings systems.
“People don’t want to deal with these issues 24 hours a day” said German Greens and Bundestag member Bärbel Höhn.
“Consumers are too busy with their lives and their kids”.
What is the true value of a label?
The session, however, did not provide simple answers – in fact, to the contrary, the panel illustrated that shades of gray and contradictions pepper the debate on ‘ethical consumer’ issues. Simplistic slogans that say ‘boycott this’ or ‘only buy that’, although appealing, may not always make a positive difference on the ground.
One audience member suggested that we could reduce our environmental impacts by avoiding favoured products like coffee, chocolate and bananas, rather than trusting long and poorly governed supply chains to deliver fair trade and organic products.
But de Freitas cautioned against complete boycotts of product which are known to have negative impacts.
“The boycott of tropical rainforest products in the early 1980s resulted in more deforestation because the timber became less valuable and people switched to raising cattle”.
“The world is far too complex to make those assumptions,” he said.
It seems impossible to know with 100% certainty that you are supporting sustainable primary producers in the developing world obtain a fair price for their work. de Freitas and others working to encourage large companies to be socially responsible don’t have any illusions about the shortcomings of voluntary standards. Although far from a great transformation, maybe there is value in labeling as a first step in the evolution of a better system.
Here are some thoughts and observations I took away from the conference, in no particular order:
- Credibility counts: it helps to have conference organisers who are green in name and deed, not to mention professional. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung provided a green building and seasonal, local, vegetarian food (although the provision of bottled water instead of tap water seemed unnecessary).
- Bigger is not always better: it might seem obvious but usually representatives of current governments and executive members of organisations make the least original contributions to the debate, either because they have more at stake or less time to prepare something new to say.
- Global green: if a global movement for climate change is needed, as several speakers like Jerome Ringo called for, then surely language matters. Global climate advocacy seems to be so Anglo-American centric and some ideas don’t translate well, even into a related language like German. Still, Avaaz and others do their best to provide different terminologies, but without volunteers this can be costly.
- Growth pains: even the experts had trouble articulating what sustainable or progressive growth is. There seem to be many competing ideas our there and this has made it easier for societies to preference the economic devil we know.
Check out Our World 2.0 in the next couple of weeks for more detailed stories on innovative solutions presented at the conference.