Consumers need businesses to step up

I’ve been wearing Veja trainers for a while and a colleague asked me the other day if I was grumpy that everyone’s now wearing them. If I’m grumpy that they have become the next Ugg boot. I’m not grumpy, I’m bloody ecstatic! Not because I care about whether I’m on trend or not (I never am) but because a product that is ethically made is on trend.

16% of consumers are “super greens” – people that consistently consider sustainability when they are shopping. Even for those consumers, it’s really hard to work out what to buy and where to buy it from. How do you work out the full life cycle impact of what you buy? The trade-offs between plastic waste and carbon emissions? Whether the company is paying a fair wage to all their staff and making sure that happens in their supply chain too? It’s a minefield that each of us can’t be expected to navigate successfully.

For most people though, the sustainability of the product isn’t a consideration, even if someone cares about the environment – there’s a big gap between caring and behaving differently. (Really we need system wide change to tackle consumerism and capitalism but that’s a whole huge other topic for another day.)

However, Futerra research recently found that 88% of consumers in the UK and US would like brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical and the Carbon Trust research found that 67% of people would like a recognisable carbon label to show that products have been made with a commitment to measuring and reducing the carbon footprint.

Let’s imagine for a minute that the companies who are already working on sustainability provide new labelling so consumers can understand the environmental and social impact of the items they’re buying, the same way as you can understand the nutritional value of the food you buy in the supermarket. That would be great step forward. We’d have all the information we need to make a good decision. Oatly have just started putting the carbon footprint on their oat milk cartons and Denmark are moving to put environmental impact labelling on all food. So it is starting.

But the trouble is, the environmental and social impact of the product is not the only factor we consider when we buy something, other (likely more) important factors are: the price, whether all your friends have one, how well it works, what it looks like etc etc. So if we care and we have the information we might not make the ‘good’ choice, and the sustainability information is irrelevant for the portion of consumers who can’t make that choice or don’t care.

We need the impact of our buying habits to not be dependent solely on each of us making ‘good’ choices. We need all brands to be changing how they operate and how they make their products so that change happens at scale. Some companies are doing this already but not nearly enough. The vision of a movement started in the US called B Corp, could be the answer to this. Certified B Corps are companies that balance profit and purpose, meeting the highest standards of environmental and social performance, public transparency and legal accountability. Companies must successfully certify against numerous requirements (then re-certify every few years and the requirements get harder) and change their articles of association to embed purpose in the company’s legal set-up. The vision isn’t that every company in the world will become certified, instead that the ground swell of companies certifying will result in this type of business becoming the new normal, without the need for a special certification.

I’m a big believer in the power of individual action. Many people doing small things can have an impact but that alone is not enough for the scale of the problem we’re dealing with. Businesses have a huge role to play as force for social good, maybe B Corp is the answer, maybe there are other options. Either way, we need them urgently to step up and take the onus for ‘good’ choices away from just being up to the consumer. In the meantime, those of us lucky enough to be able to make that choice, need to be voting with our wallets and telling companies that we expect them to be doing more, that we expect them to be responsible for their products and their operations.

photo credit: -Meesho- A synonym for dizziness via photopin (license)

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