Environmentally friendly goods are often overpriced for many consumers – and as the economic crisis continues to bite, many suggest that tax incentives are needed to make green shopping more affordable.
But stakeholders gathered in a conference dedicated to resource-efficiency earlier this month (11 October) warned that "selling" the resource efficiency agenda to consumers as cost-saving could have some serious fallout.
“Selling resource efficiency through the cost-saving argument will not work as people will just go and buy other stuff,” noted the WWF UK’s campaigns director David Norman.
The same problem applies for example to the energy efficiency gains obtained from more efficient fridges which is being offset by the regular addition of new energy-consuming gadgets into our homes, Norman said.
This so-called "rebound effect" has already been acknowledged as a problem in the climate change debate. Owners of a fuel-efficient car might for example be more easily tempted to drive further. And the money saved on heating thanks to insulation can be spent on an overseas holiday.
While Norman acknowledged that the rebound effects was not fully documented by academic research, he did stress the need to look for new sources of value, such as appreciating the quality of goods purchased rather than buying cheap.
Asked about potential solutions to the rebound effect problem, Steven Stone from the UNEP Economics and Trade branch insisted on the importance of pricing. “Prices are not reflecting the resources used,” he said, suggesting that the price of unsustainable products was not high enough.
Norman agreed that pricing was "fundamental" and that "we need to push it as far as we can.” But he also said that “we should focus on values because in the end it is not just about economics, but also about expanding space for people in other parts of the world and making sure future generations can sustain their lives and families as well.”
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch liberal MEP who is drafting the European Parliament's position on the Commission's resource-efficiency roadmap suggested that there could be a way of not necessarily consuming less if we consumed “more smartly”.
For example, he said using materials such as glass, which is infinitely recyclable, is ok “if we recycle it all the time 100 %”.
He also suggested taking a closer look at the concept of the “leasing society”, in which consumers would not necessarily always buy things such as telephones but rather pay for using them. After use, consumers would then return the goods, which would be either put to reuse or recovered through recycling.
Such an approach could pave the way for the much touted circular economy, Gerbrandy noted.
Business to help change consumer behaviour?
Speaking at the conference, Thomas Lingard, Unilever’s global advocacy director said that big multinationals have the experience to communicate messages and could therefore help promote good environmental behaviour.
He explained for example how Unilever had boosted its sales of toothpaste in North Africa without directly boasting that brushing teeth is good for one’s health. Instead, Unilever linked tooth-brushing with a "subliminal message" – i.e: the notion of spending quality time between fathers and their children.
Indeed, big consumer brands spend a lot of time and money understanding their client's behaviour to influence them. And some suggest that multinationals’ global outreach could be used to drive more sustainable consumer behaviour.
Greening production first
But it is not only about steering consumer behaviour or a few environmentally-conscious buyers to opt for goods that are "better for the environment". The production side is just as important, if not more, since consumers need to be given the choice of opting for greener purchases.
A conference on sustainable food sourcing, held in Brussels last week (19 October), heard that while the average consumer would like to “do the right thing” and buy green, few are willing to pay the price for it. In general, consumers tend to expect that somebody else will be doing the right thing for them.
In the retail sector, the practice of steering consumers towards specific choices is called "choice-editing".
Choice-editing means that environmentally-harmful products for instance are simply put off the shelves via regulations and standards, or voluntarily by companies themselves, in a drive to make sustainability inherent to all products.