Can consumers help save the planet?

I don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of American consumers to drive environmental progress.

Having said that, I hope I’m wrong.

Dara O'Rourke

I looked at efforts to mobilize consumers to drive environmental change in this story at the excellent YaleEnvironment360 website, which is edited by my Yale college classmate Roger Cohn. The story is mostly about GoodGuide, a company formed by Dara O’Rourke in 2007 with the best of intentions: Good Guide rates many thousands of products and seeks to steer consumer dollars to those products and companies that are better for society, health and the environment. Dara is smart, thoughtful and admirable guy who, as it happens, was once a student of my college roommate Josh Cohen, who’s now a professor of political science, philosophy and law at Stanford, on leave this year at Apple.  Small world. But I digress.

The challenge for Dara and other companies and nonprofits is to get consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the planet whenever they go to the store. If only. People are busy. They’re not well-informed. They don’t believe that anthropogenic climate change is real. They are stretched for cash. They like big cars. They prefer meat to vegetables. And so forth. For these and many more reasons, if we want to curb global warming or protect biodiversity, I don’t think we’re going to make a lot of progress at the supermarket or drugstore checkout lines. [For more, see my blogpost, The Elusive Green Consumer]

But–and this occurred to me only while reporting the story–we may not actually need consumers to change their buying habits to drive environmental change. Maybe the mere threat that they will act will do the job.  I say this because the ratings that companies like GoodGuide provides can by themselves get companies to think about what ingredients to put into their products. Climate Counts, which rates companies on their efforts to curb climate change, has seen the ratings rise in recent years despite the absence of legislative pressure. I doubt that Climate Counts drives many purchasing decisions, but no company wants to be at the bottom of a ranking. If nothing else, their employees may be paying attention, and no one wants to work for a corporate environmental laggard.

GoodGuide, by the way, is developing a version of its ratings for institutional buyers as well as retailers–who may prove to be a better and more powerful market lever.

Here’s how my story begins. The headline is Betting on Technology to Help Turn Consumers Green:

The way Dara O’Rourke tells the story, the idea for GoodGuide came to him when he was slathering some suntan lotion onto his three-year-old daughter’s face. O’Rourke, an associate professor of environmental and labor policy at University of California, Berkeley, wondered about the ingredients in Coppertone Water Babies; he did some research and learned it contained oxybenzone, a potential skin irritant. Later, O’Rourke found out that Johnson’s Baby Shampoo contained trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen. “It shocked me,” he says, “that I basically knew nothing about the products I was bringing into my own house.”

O’Rourke started GoodGuide to plug that information gap. A five-year-old company backed by $10 million in venture capital, GoodGuide employs about 20 people, including environmental scientists, chemists, toxicologists and nutritionists, who rate more than 165,000 products, including personal care items, household cleaners, food, toys, appliances and electronics. Each product gets a numerical rating from 1 to 10 in three categories — health, environment, and society; the ratings are then made available on GoodGuide’s website, on Facebook and on smartphones.

O’Rourke describes GoodGuide as a social enterprise, meaning the firm has a purpose that goes beyond making money: It aims to persuade consumers to vote with their wallets for environmentally-friendly products and companies, and thereby help tackle big problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and industrial pollution.

“There definitely is a growing percentage of consumers who are aware and who care and who are seeking out products that have better environmental, social, and health attributes,” O’Rourke says. “We view those consumers who care as point of leverage over these big, big systems.” These “conscious consumers,” as they’re sometimes called, are important to the work of activist groups who bring pressure on corporations to reform their environmental or social practices; companies feel compelled to respond because they don’t want to alienate even a small share of their customers or potential customers.

It’s a reasonable theory of change. But does it work? Are there enough conscious consumers to make an impact? Shoppers may tell market researchers that they want to buy “greener” products — but can they be motivated to act?

You can read the rest here.

Comments

  1. Well said, Marc.

    I think this assessment is on point. I consider myself a pointedly green consumer–enough to wait to by my staple, sustainable products if the store is out of them at the time. As much as I wish it weren’t true, I certainly consider myself in the minority, even amongst colleagues that consider themselves enthusiasts, if not practitioners, of sustainability. Of all the reasons you list, I think that the ailment of the uninformed consumer is the most prevalent, the most difficult to cure and fosters the most resistance.

    To your point, I think that the perception of revenue consequences for companies is a powerful agent, though not as powerful as the companies that are beginning to make more public actions of sustainable support. I was drawn to Coca-Cola’s recent withdrawal of funding to the ALEC lobbying group due to their anti-climate change lobby. In a way, it can be a bit of a two-hander and large corporate entities have an opportunity to exert market forces just like the consumer–hopefully burning the candle at both ends.

  2. Marc Gunther says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Tyler, very interesting perspective.

    I was not aware that Coca-Cola had withdrawn from ALEC. (I had been meaning to ask them about that.)

    It may be that GoodGuide, Climate Counts, the Greenpeace IT ratings and countless other ratings programs are most powerful not because they will sway consumers but because they affect current and potential employees. There is and always will be competition for talent, and the best companies will be those that attract the smartest and most engaged workers. I may be wrong but I believe those workers very much want their employers to do good.

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