The complexity of
The topic of sustainability is nothing new. It’s a topic that will most likely never go away…that is, until the day we get it right and it becomes just the way we do things. Today, on the conscious quest to eat, shop, work, and live more sustainably many tend to stumble when confronted with making “the better choice.” And while many brands shuffle to offer exactly that, consumers are often left questioning the impact that their choice really made. On a mission to explore what sustainability means, we’ve asked our Senior Advisor of Future Research and PhD Candidate, Elin Rudberg, to share her thoughts on the topic. In this post, Elin focuses on Sweden and acknowledges the complexities of sustainable consumption.
What does it mean to be a sustainable consumer? In today’s world, with the constant debate about climate change and how contemporary lifestyles drain Earth’s resources, the question is more relevant than ever before. However, it is also a highly elusive question with no easy answers. One problem is of course how to define and what to include in the concept of “sustainable consumption.”
A few recent examples illustrate how difficult it can be. Take the issue of the impact of eating meat on emission levels. To eat less meat is often perceived as a good way to decrease your carbon footprint. However, a recent opinion article in the Swedish daily newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, argued that grazing cattle (such as cows and sheep) can have a positive impact on the environment, since such pastures can effectively contain large quantities of carbon dioxide. In addition, grazing cattle contribute to keeping the landscape open and to biological diversity. Of course, this article did not go unchallenged. Another article questioned the proposition that pastures could compensate for the cattle’s emissions.
Yet, another example concerns the extent of whether organic food is actually better from a health perspective, than food produced using conventional methods. A few years ago, the large Swedish cooperative food chain Coop, claimed in its advertising campaign that eating organic food can lower the levels of harmful substances (such as pesticides) in the body, compared to conventionally produced food. This summer of 2017, the Swedish Patent and Marketing Court concluded that the proposition was incorrect and misleading – Coop did not have enough proof to make such a claim.
Some studies highlight that it doesn’t matter how many sustainable consumer products you buy – after one trip to Thailand you have offset any positive effects from your conscious choices at home. A difficult finding to accept for an increasingly travel-prone middle class that has gotten used to the yearly (or at least bi-annual) trip to warmer weather. Also, one must not forget that there are many benefits from travelling, for example, a better understanding between different cultures and peoples.
The problem lies in the issue of sustainable consumption being highly complex. It is probably just as incorrect to make the general claim that eating meat is good for the environment, as it is wrong to claim that it is bad. Too much depends on how food is produced; under what conditions and where it comes from. In the end, the consumer is left with many difficult choices; choices that can also be time consuming and stressful to need to consider.
When working with everyday consumer products these issues always end up high on the agenda. First and foremost, it is important for companies to be transparent towards customers, and avoid making claims that are not trustworthy or simply an effect of “green washing”. Acknowledging that the topic is difficult, but then explaining how and why you work with sustainability in the way you do is a good strategy. Also, helping consumers make choices without making them feel guilty or scared is increasingly important. This is easier said than done, but it doesn’t mean that we should stop trying.