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The myth of the green consumer

One of the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “by 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.” Consumers are being asked to take action to prevent climate change around the world. Large problems are solved by small acts on the part of consumers. Information and the right attitudes turn into responsible choices in a trivial way. I like to call this kind of wishful thinking the myth of the green consumer.

As a researcher, I have some reservations about climate protection campaigns when the message is packaged in the form of individual decisions and emotions. The “I promise” Heat Pledge campaign run by a certain electricity company is an excellent example of emotional speech that overshadows more effective and realistic methods of affecting climate change. The confessional and individualistic climate change faith promoted by the campaign resembles the arguments of climate change deniers: climate change is a matter of personal belief rather than a scientific view.

In order to be effective, consumer-driven climate protection campaigns would require extensive – and thus rather unrealistic – lifestyle changes that would question, for example, the increasing size of homes, greater mobility or eating meat. Many routine and invisible necessities, such as one of humankind’s finest and least celebrated inventions – the uninterrupted cold chain – would be challenged. In England, it has been estimated that 3% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by cold storage. I doubt that many consumers would be ready to exchange their refrigerated products for food preserved in salt.

Consumers don’t act in a knowledge-based manner when this requires radical lifestyle changes. Green attitudes don’t automatically challenge everyday routines either. I believe that the most effective consumer incentives are price steering and the creation of functional alternatives. The radical improvement in traffic safety or our increasingly healthy diet demonstrate how much can be achieved by offering options or limiting them.

Only radical – and thus rather unrealistic – lifestyle changes can decrease a consumer’s footprint to the same extent as, for example, intervening in the energy efficiency of industrial machines, international emissions norms or community structures.

The paradox is that green consumers may actually be born out of necessity as Asia’s materialistically-oriented middle class grows and the cost of raw materials rises, thus forcing western consumers like me to, for example, reduce heating costs by limiting home size.

Mika Pantzar is a professor at the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences, Consumer Research Center.