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Drawing on their years of deep engagement with these issues, the respondents present very thoughtful comments on the role of consumers in influencing global markets. Despite a range of concerns, a consensus emerges among us that consumers can—and must—play some role in advancing more sustainable and equitable production.
However, the respondents raise important questions about how consumers fit within broader strategies and how acts of individual consumption can be scaled to make a difference and potentially lead to even more transformative collective actions. The respondents also rightly point to the need to oppose the worst forms of greenwash and corporate-controlled marketing schemes dressed up as beneficial information.
In their specific critiques, the respondents point to familiar market manipulations, where consumers are provided suspect information, overloading or deceiving them (Schor, van Heerden); allowing companies to greenwash their images and get credit for token acts (Richey and Ponte, Nova); leading them to feel they have done their part and demotivating further collective action (Szasz); and undermining efforts to encourage governments to advance systematic regulations that achieve real improvements in global supply chains (Nova).
I agree that cynical versions of labeling systems, cause-based marketing, and brand aid should be exposed and resisted. And I don’t underestimate the significant challenges to empowering and motivating consumers to act on their values.
But the fact that corporations have manipulated consumers in the past is no argument for ignoring or discounting the role consumers might play in the future. I believe we are at a turning point in efforts to advance transparency and enable new forms of consumer-citizen participation in the marketplace that respond explicitly to several of the problems identified here. Improvements in information technologies, supply chain tracking systems, environmental life-cycle assessment techniques, and behavioral psychology are laying the foundation for new systems of consumer information and engagement.
Despite these advances, there are good reasons to wonder about the role of consumers in broader strategies to advance sustainability, human rights, global health, and equitable development. Let me address three of these issues.
First, van Heerdan and Nova rightly note a lack of rigorous data on labor rights violations, and they fear that the softness of existing information may actually lead to worse forms of greenwash. I take this concern seriously, but I believe the answer is more and better information. Our capacity to monitor, measure, collect, and communicate information about global supply chains to the public is increasing. Having more stakeholders demanding this information makes it harder for firms to greenwash.
This claim is borne out by experience. When GoodGuide first launched ratings of household cleaning products, none of the mainstream brands would disclose the ingredients in their products. Due to a loophole in U.S. laws, household chemical manufacturers did not have to tell their customers whether there were hazardous chemicals in their products. A handful of green brands disclosed, but the mainstream, top-selling brands did not.
We rated these brands and “dinged” their scores for non-disclosure of product ingredients. Brands complained. But we made clear that we could not accurately evaluate the products without full ingredient disclosure. Faced with several NGO campaigns, a lawsuit in New York, the introductions of a number of state-level bills, and growing consumer demands to know what was in the products, all of the major cleaning products companies “voluntarily” disclosed their ingredients.
We are at a turning point in advancing transparency and enabling new forms of consumer-citizen participation in the market.
The process of creating public ratings, and of interacting with leading NGOs, academics, and firms around these ratings, has been critical to learning what matters most in each product category, what data is missing, and how we might collect it. By identifying this information, incentivizing leading firms to disclose, and pressuring the rest of the industry to catch up, we might be able to fill exactly the information gaps that van Heerdan and Nova decry.
Second, Nova and Szasz fear that ethical consumption initiatives demobilize citizens, undermining efforts to enlist them in political activism, corporate campaigns, social movements, and even voting to influence government policies.
Schor’s research goes a long way toward addressing this concern. Schor finds that “activism is highly correlated with ethical consumption” and that “ethical consumption is an important route into [activism].” In other words, making necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) product choices each day can be a critical entry point to deeper engagement with global labor and environmental issues and to further action.
Of course simply providing scientifically credible information on labor and environmental issues is not enough. Governments, academics, and NGOs have all provided too much data and not enough advice, “nudging,” and empowerment for consumer actions. It is up to advocates, political organizers, and NGOs to provide the on-ramps to broader political action, and to show that these actions can make a difference.
Third, several reviewers suggest that any initiative focused on individual consumers—even if successful—cannot accomplish much.
I disagree. Individuals matter. Most technological innovations and social movements begin with small groups of early adopters. The challenge is always how to “cross the chasm” from this niche to the mainstream.
Even 5 percent of the market can be very influential. A small number of students have driven changes in the collegiate apparel market. Health-food customers drove early organics growth. Churches drove sales of fair trade coffee. As Margaret Levi points out, institutional purchasers—universities, governments, churches—are often central in this scaling stage. Scott Hartley may be right that not every consumer can afford the added costs of ethical consumption, but many who can still don’t buy ethically. Support from governments and other institutions might help to foster their action.
Finally, I agree with Richard Locke that we need to explore and build on strategies by which “private politics can encourage government programs to promote reform.” Consumer-focused strategies should “complement rather than substitute” for government regulation. And in cases, all too common, where the government fails to act, consumer-citizen, bottom-up pressures can help to strengthen the backs of regulators. Ethical consumption does not crowd out government regulation. To the contrary, it has the potential to lead and motivate it.
There is no doubt that we will need to mobilize individuals, along with advocacy organizations, institutional purchasers, government actors, and even leading corporations to address our most pressing environmental, labor, and health problems. The critical challenge is to design the tools, support systems, and policies that help to turn the everyday acts of millions of concerned individuals—as consumers and as citizens—into something that has the force to advance more sustainable and equitable economies.
A small percentage of consumers have already moved a portion of the market toward more sustainable practices. But the larger promise of ethical consumption remains unmet.
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