Can we shop our way to environmental health?
The question, at first glance, seems absurd. After all, many of our planet's most pressing environmental problems can be linked directly to the goods and services purchased every day by consumers in the U.S. and around the world. Many experts believe consumers in the industrialized world have an unsustainable ecological footprint. There aren't enough resources to go around, or enough ways to absorb the wastes, if everyone on the planet consumed at the same rate as Americans, Europeans, and Japanese. So, the argument goes, simply buying environmentally correct goods and services won't make a difference. We'll have to buy much less stuff, too.
Perhaps, but don't underestimate the impact of consumers' purchasing habits. This "consumer power" -- individuals' ability to "vote" for environmentally responsible companies, products, and services with their purchases -- can be a potent force in prodding the private sector to adopt more earth-friendly business practices. Companies have been known to take dramatic steps to reduce their impacts even without a widespread shift of buying habits on the part of consumers. But in a growing number of cases companies have taken proactive environmental initiatives out of a desire to be viewed as environmental leaders -- to do well by doing good.
What is the role of consumer spending in changing companies' environmental performance? How has consumer power evolved, and what have we learned about it? It's important to recognize that consumer power is as complicated as consumers themselves -- read more about these complications in Green Consumption. Part of the problem is the complexity of environmental issues; for example, Saving Face tells the story of a company that is choosing to be covert about its green activities. Which should matter more to consumers: a company that manufactures green products or a company that is truly green in its process but whose products are not thought of as green (in Beyond Green)?
So consumer power is a complex, many-sided issue, but how is it evolving? In the final section, three marketplace trends are discussed: the increasing attention paid to sustainable consumption, growing efforts by companies to be socially and environmentally responsible, and nongovernmental organizations' growing role in monitoring products and companies, as well as informing consumers. It all adds up to a vibrant conversation among consumers, interest groups, and companies about how to harness consumer markets for the good of the planet.
Next section: Saving Face