The Cinderella of Climate Change

Posted:  March 17th, 2011 by:  The Environment Site comments:  0

I attended the launch last week of the CBI’s report Buying into it: Making the Consumer Case for Low Carbon.   With 60% of the UK’s carbon emissions linked to consumer behaviour or influence, it was good to see the new Director General of the CBI, John Cridland, and Chris Huhne MP share a platform together to address consumer engagement.

On several occasions, Cridland called the consumer “the Cinderella of climate change”: long ignored thus far, the consumer has the ability to effect real change.

Much of the conversation focused on the language used to persuade consumers to buy.  Both Huhne and Cridland argued that we need to shift from promoting a ‘green’ product away from arguments about climate change to cost benefits.  Vox pops from the CBI’s research supported this and Graham Smith from Toyota also made a compelling case.

While the apparent consensus was positive, I came away feeling slightly disappointed on two fronts.

Firstly, many of the examples cited and the arguments proferred related to ‘machines’ (to be simplistic): “Choose this washing machine – it may be more expensive to buy, but it will be cheaper for you to run”.  I felt these arguments reflected a rather narrow view of consumerism.  Of course, one has to start somewhere and carbon-emitting consumer goods is a good place.   However, what of all the other things we consume in large quantities such as clothes, cosmetics, stationery, furniture… All of these have environmental impacts too.  I speak to many companies who cannot make the argument that ‘it will save you money in the long run’, despite the environmental credentials of their products, and consumer messaging can be a real challenge.  Companies are sometimes relying on their own eco labels to tell the story but with nearly 350 such labels in existence according to Big Room Inc, this doesn’t always help the consumer make informed choices (this is probably a post for another day).

Secondly, I felt uneasy because there had been a lot of talk about ‘consuming more’ green products and that consumers are driven by ‘price and the latest gear’.  The argument about changing the language of green consumerism points to a drive for greater consumption of these goods.  However, much tougher questions need to be raised about consumption and the role of business and government: we do need to consume differently, of course, but aren’t our levels of consumption a critical issue?  Shouldn’t the discussion be about consuming not just differently, but less?

John Cridland used the event to announce the formation of a new group, representing different industry sectors, “to work out a consistent, clear and mutually beneficial way of getting consumers involved” and invited the government to take part.  This is a welcome move – but I hope they will have the courage to be ambitious in their vision and address consumption in its broadest manifestation.

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