Twenty variations of toilet paper and green stories all worth a pile of cr…..edibility?

Going shopping these days is overwhelming, especially if you’re out to buy something somewhat indispensable to sustaining your current life style (and no, chocolate does not qualify). Im talking along the lines of soap, washing detergent, toilet paper, toothpaste…you get the picture. I usually just want to get my product/necessity X and escape the masses of equally frustrated shoppers wondering up and down the aisles of Too Many Choices.

Voting for a better world via my wallet and doing efficient shopping seems to be becoming an increasingly impossible equation. Since when did I need twenty variations of toilet paper?  Rows and rows of assuring science about double-ply absorbency rates, “Flush&Go”s and Nordic Swan certificates. Cut the cr*** and give me something sustainable and kind on my behind!

ImageDoing really the right thing and making the (subjectively) best choices becomes painfully time consuming with more and more companies trying to weave green stories and certificates into their products. “Communication is not always in line with the reality of the corporate culture and behavior” as my colleague Andrea rightly points out. She also gives a great example of a (marketing) campaign of Krombacher, a German brewery, promising to donate part of the earnings gained from sold beers to save chunks of rainforest. Customers buying Krombacher beers feel good about supporting rainforest conservation while justifying and feeling better about their own consumption habits…only that Krombacher is going all magician on us and wafting one rainforest clad-hand in our faces while distracting us about the fact that they’re not doing an Amazon ant’s worth of improvement in their actual production methods towards being more sustainable.

Who would’ve ever though making beer-buying decisions would turn out to be so tough one day? (that is obviously assuming that you care about the impact of your purchase decisions)

In our world, you need to buy to live and you live to buy. A fact you can’t run away from in your new squeaky Nikes. Additionally I don’t think we would last very long if we had huge pangs of guilt and distress after every single purchase.  This issue was touched upon during some interesting discussion during our lectures: to what extent do feelings and emotions motivate action? (or non-action?) Guilt can definitely sit with you long after swiping your Visa. So how do we internalize certain values and moral responsibility that affect our decisions?

Individual moral responsibility will carry you through daily decisions fairly well but paying a “social” price and losing face for being the only weirdo not conforming to collective expectations of making smart choices will definitely get you squinting at labels more attentively.

Greenwashed products can lull us into a false sense of having done good but showy eco-design and matching messaging can only get companies so far: we can read and we can investigate. We demand more proof, more action. Society at large also seems to be sprouting movements dedicated to see that we do actually try and buy our way into a better future.

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3 comments
  1. Lots of questions. I’m not sure if anyone has definitive answers. There are several ways of veering towards a sustainably oriented lifestyle. One may have a moral approach to sustainability. This, I would venture, has to start from the individual to believe it is moral to contribute to the general welfare of the society and the environment (depending on how you want to define morality, it is possible for someone to feel it is moral to care only about yourself). And sometimes I wonder how many people really have such morals. Moreover, abiding to one’s moral commitments or beliefs can be excruciatingly difficult, and most people slip from their morals at least every now and then even if it does cause emotional distress. My point here is, a moral position as a driver is too rare and too weak for it to be relied on. As you imply in your text, the expectations of your peers and important others are a stronger driver of behavior – however, I have doubts about the resilience of motivations with such shifty underpinnings. Sustainability still is more a niche thing than mainstream, more a trend than a habit. Still, I don’t consider a more permanent cultural shift impossible. But so far the social movements pushing towards some notion of sustainability have not had a great impact on company behavior, while regulation remains more efficient.

  2. I think another important question to think about is: where lies the responsibility? Is it up to us as consumers to be aware of the consequences of our actions throughout the value chain? Or is it the responsibility of the company to make sure that their products are ethically produced?

    Of course, the company has better knowledge on the business operations and therefore can maybe do better choices. But, many times there are trade offs between sustainability and economic factors. In these cases, can we expect companies to cut back on their own advantage for sustainability? These questions lead us deeper into business ethics: What is the moral responsibility of a company in our society?

    I think that the responsibility lies more in the hands of policy makers. As commented, rules and regulations have been more effective to bring change than just CSR and company sustainability policies. Society needs to provide companies an ethical framework to regulate business actions.

    So I don’t think we need to carry that much guilt as a consumers. But rather I think it is important to be aware of what’s going on and to also take parts in the politics.

  3. Yes, that is indeed a pertinent question. And I agree, these are issues where policy is the most effective driver of change. The whole idea of voluntary corporate responsibility on a macro level serves, to a significant extent, to cater to corporate interests and at worst shifts political power into the hands of private corporations, thus damaging democracy. But these are discussions for other avenues.

    Regardless, I wouldn’t be too eager to relinquish all responsibility into the hands of regulators (I know, that is not what you said, but hear me out). We as consumers are after all the ‘enablers’ or much of environmental degradation and social injustice. Regulators are often slow to act, but can be at least indirectly influenced by citizens. As you state there, it’s important to know what’s going on and also *take part(/action)*. Perhaps guilt could help here. Gordon Gecko said greed is good. I’m tempted to switch ‘greed’ to ‘guilt’. 🙂

    Jukka

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