Are your consumption choices my business?

I recently spoke to a group of Masters of Environmental Science students about the benefits of approaching business with sustainability in mind. What started as a routine presentation ended with quite a bit of excitement when the topic of personal consumption arose.

In general, I find that most people consider it their right to purchase whatever they wish and if questioned on this, they often become irritated. Others see the question itself as a judgement call which can lead to defensive or even angry behaviour. And finally the last reaction is a full blown attack on the concept of sustainability itself.

I found it interesting to watch a group of once quiet students assert themselves and take sides on this heated issue. I was particularly intrigued by the group that asserted that sustainability isn’t really doing any good, rather, it’s just moving harm from one place to another and therefore, “my consumption choices are not part of the problem.”  People certainly have quite an emotional connection to their stuff!

As I stepped back and let the students take the conversation in whatever direction they chose, it was interesting to watch two camps emerge and fight it out in the trenches, debating the merits of sustainability and the impacts of our consumer choices.

And so we must ask the question:  Are people’s purchasing decisions private or do they cause harm to others and thus we have the right to voice our opinion?  The answer is unclear, but if you decide to share your thoughts on this topic proceed with caution. I’ll go out on a limb here and say, people don’t generally like to be second guessed on how they spend their money and they definitely can take offence when told to take ownership and responsibility for the harmful impacts of their personal consumption choices. Some conversations are more difficult than others to get started but nonetheless, they are definitely conversations worth having.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  • Walt Palmer

    Hi Brad,

    Consumer choices are just that – choices. And I find that there is little point in trying to get people to do the right thing solely through an act of will. ‘Leakage’ happens at all scales, even at the personal level. So if I spend extra money for a plug-in hybrid car and the only effect of that is a marginal reduction in demand for gasoline that simply takes price pressure off the goy who wants to drive a big 4×4 pick ‘me up truck to the office, it’s frustrating and doesn’t help as much as it should to be making that responsible choice.

    Consumer choices influence others with whom we interact and they help build momentum for better ways of doing things but there is no point in pressuring the reluctant. They probably don’t want to know. Beyond the act of simply making the effect of choices understood, my strategy is to leave it alone and work on getting policy changed so that the bad choices are not available. In other words, we should not be arguing over choices at all. If what you consume affects the world negatively, it should not be on the shelf.

    Walt Palmer

  • My experience in sales (both in sustainable and other products) is that people generally don’t react well to being told they’ve made the wrong decision. That’s true even if they are presented new data that, had they known, they may well have made a different decision. Product choice is always subjective in the end.

    We are better to present our, more sustainable alternative, in a positive light based on all its features & benefits including the sustainability.

  • Leonard Howe

    I think in our parents day, it was pretty wide open as to purchase decisions and choices. That’s where the idea of a “right” comes from. Certainly, any choices they made were not that impactful. These days the dollar and purchase decisions are king, marketing budgets along with careers rise and fall, etc. Certainly no one is going to tell me what colour socks to wear (although it can be easily argued that your purchase decisions are already not dictated but heavily influenced) but the law already denies you purchasing engandered animal skins, and eating shark fins. Purchasing power is the most powerful, but if consumer society said no or yes more, mountains could be moved, policies emerging. We just get caught up in our own cross fighting, and you know who is watching? First thing you have to ask is, who has a vested interest.

  • Abhishek Bhasin

    Well…the reaction shows the inertia we still have and its human nature to resist change. People make choices because of so many reasons but saying that our choices are personal and society should have no say in that is something which I could not never comprehend. If as an individual we can gain from other members of the society then we have to give consideration to their opinions as well. The objective is to look at it from a perspective of an objective conversation. I have seen people accepting thoughts when they are not forced upon. I think the best way is to incorporate data and facts into the products and choices. The movement has already started in this direction through digital product tags and overtime behavior change happens. Another way is to tap teenagers and young adults as they are at an age where choices are not yet fixed and they consider “change” as experiencing life.