Positive Thought Eight: Edit, rather than inform, consumer choice

Many companies become nervous about sustainability because their customers are not asking for it, let alone demanding it.

Market research is ambiguous – exposing concern for the environment, but a reluctance to pay more or compromise quality. This is seen by some as justification for inaction. Such a conclusion is flawed, and needs to be to be challenged. It makes a false assumption of choice, and a second false assumption that sustainability will compromise price and quality. Short term, maybe. But if we agree that unsustainability is unsustainable, then companies should be preparing for it regardless of customer feedback. 

Customers did not demand bar codes or pallets, but the supply chain thrives as a result of them – the same must be true for sustainability.

Customers are, however, fickle. They respect a brand that takes on these issues, especially one that does it without the price or quality compromise. Meanwhile, they are quick to look down on a brand that gets it wrong .

Most companies fear a child labour or sweat shop scandal in their supply chain or product story,  They also would prefer (if not expect) that the brands they buy from be on top of these the long term trends. The ‘ask’ of the customer is that this be achieved in a way that does not compromise their current lifestyles. This once again re-enforces a central point in this narrative: that sustainable development is about finding the means to deliver more, and better quality, modern plasma TV lifestyles. That is: this is less about pure consumer choice, and more about embedding the right things into all the products and services they are offered.

Consumer choice, with or without eco-labels, will not be the major driver of change. Sustainability can help public relations and marketing, but it should be the reason for doing it.

B&Q is a good example – their customers can only buy timber from well managed forests. I called this lack of choice between green and not so green “choice editing” in the “I Will if You Will” report I co-authored (see bibliography). Choice editing helps the price issue, because the volume helps reduces the price and inventory costs – it is cheaper for a retailer to offer one item than two.

How many people would not have bought their child the latest Harry Potter book because it was not printed on FSC paper? How many people only bought Harry Potter because it was printed on FSC paper? But Harry Potter was one of  FSC’s largest interventions at the time. It was the publisher who just decided to do it: an excellent example of choice editing

Choice editing is not confined to higher cost products. At Sainsbury’s (a UK retailer), the cheapest toilet paper is FSC certified. It’s a procurement standard. Even if you want to supply Sainsbury’s with the lowest cost toilet paper they are prepared to buy, you will still have to have that toilet paper certified. Another example of “choice editing”.

Rethinking Corporate Sustainability – If Only We Ran the Planet Like a Shop! (374.8 KB)