Monthly Archives: May 2012

No consequence consumerism – or how online shopping undermines sustainability

Yesterday I was at the North West annual Mayday summit for business with a focus on sustainability. These summits – held around the UK- are the most public manifestation of the work of the network established by the Prince of Wales to encourage business to address the environmental challenges we are facing network, supported by Business in the Community.

As ever there were excellent examples of the ways in which leading, serious companies have made great strides to reduce carbon, increase sustainability and work with both supply chains and customers to raise awareness of the need to take corporate and personal action. One interesting topic was the extent to which in the eyes of the public there is more trust in the concrete actions of companies and the evidence of the impact of their work than in the often empty rhetoric of governments. With our own UK Government ‘flip flopping’ all over the place on the ‘green agenda’ the knowledge that business was still focused on the action needed to reduce waste, improve energy efficiency, generate and use renewable energy etc could be a source of strength for those wanting to argue the case for change.

Then – doodling away – I had one of those ‘yes but’ moments .And in the margins I wrote ‘no consequence consumerism’ as I started to think about shopping online.

Because it was clear that the brand promotion work, the public information, the clear labelling and all the other ways in which the leading companies are changing and encouraging us to change are located  primarily in the old world of physical consumption. What we might call the ‘going to the shops ‘ experience, with goods and services stationed in front of us and with time available for deliberation and weighing up of the claims made by rival brands.

Not the breathless, screeching world of internet shopping as enjoyed by so many – especially younger people.

There the search is for price ( the optimum being free)  and the use of mediating and sifting search engines that pay no heed to sustainability/labour practices/CO2 impacts .You can sort your selections by price and relevance – but I haven’t noticed any categories for CO2 impact or air miles.  All those £2.83 CD’s flown in from California!  Click the button, feel the rush as you get hold of that top notch release at a ridiculously low price  and not a moments thought about anything else. A morally weightless purchase and a transaction in which the consumer feels no responsibility for the actions (good or bad) of the provider.

Let us be clear -this is what online does to us all if we are not careful – it allows us the outlaw thrill of  beating the market on price and getting our hands on untold goods and services at a fraction of what ‘they’ want us to pay.The most obvious examply of this is the bogus moral campaign to gain free online access to music and  media in the name of ‘liberty’ with no regard to any other issue ( a world in which the consumer expects to get paid by their employer to buy music, but the notion of paying the  musicians to get hold of the fruits of their labour is anathema).

What worries me is that this ‘no consequence consumerism’ is integral to the appeal of the internet. It ‘frees’ us from entanglement in the messier world of  real time shopping or consuming, in return for our being to get what we want, when we want it at the cheapest price in town.(although of course we are far from being in any town at all). And speed is seen as an advantage – sure products are reviewed and some sites such as Argos even post critical reviews – but have a look : where are those health labels, those air miles, those CO2 consumed in production, that information about recycling? With no physical product there is nothing to be seen (unless it is tucked away in that terms and conditions information that nobody on line ever reads).

So while we work away above ground to ‘save the planet’, underground the trolls still continue to undermine the foundations of our fragile eco system, cloaking their actions in all too plausible appeals to ‘freedom’,  flexibility and ‘saving time and money’.

Yet like so many on-line activities, this is not an organised ‘conspiracy’  funded by climate change deniers and greedy, unscrupulous  capitalists , but the culmination of countless ,seemingly individual transactions each of which takes no account of collective or societal consequence.

But all of our actions have a consequence and if we cannot begin to find ways of involving on-line consumers in thinking about and taking account  of these before they ‘place their order’ then we may be unwittingly storing up more problems for the future to add to those that we are already seeking to resolve.