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pictureThe Role of the Consumer

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A series of media reports and books, such as The Green Consumer Guide (Elkington & Hailes 1989), have given many people the impression that the environment can be saved if individuals are responsible in their shopping habits and buy only environmentally sound products. The idea is that firms wanting to take advantage of this new demand for green products will change their production processes and redesign their products to meet the demand. Environmentally sound goods will become profitable. This view has been reinforced by commentators:

Sustainable Development means a change in consumption patterns towards environmentally more benign products, and a change in investment patterns towards augmenting environmental capital. (Pearce, Markandya & Barbier 1989, p. xiv)

The better informed and environmentally conscious consumers of the future will demand to know the environmental impact of many of the major products and services they intend to purchase. (ESD Working Groups 1991a, p. 58)

The tendency for consumers to prefer environmentally sound products has already become evident. Surveys show that a significant proportion of consumers, particularly young mothers in Australia and other high-income countries, make an effort to buy green products such as pump packs, unbleached papers and items made of recycled paper. About 28 per cent would pay more for safe aerosols and biodegradable plastic products, and 35 per cent for natural foods that were not produced using pesticides. The evidence on consumers' willingness to take a stand by refusing plastic bags or overpackaged goods is less clear.

These signs have prompted a surge of advertisements and labels claiming environmental benefits. Green imagery is used to sell products. Caring for the environment has become a marketing strategy. Often, the claims have very little substance. Greenpeace campaigners Dadd and Carothers (1990, p. 10) claim that Chevron, a multinational oil company, spends about five times as much publicising its environmental actions as it does on the actions themselves.

Marketing managers who recognise the opportunities that might be opened up by the growth of green consumerism can encourage their firms to invest in 'clean' technology and then 'market' their products on that basis. They can also convey to their firms the potential for environmentally damaging activities or discharges to receive adverse publicity. Environmental departments tend to concentrate on monitoring compliance with regulations and liaising with government bodies, the public and environmentalists. However, there is the potential for them to take part in formulating company objectives and influencing production processes. Quality assurance departments have been able to integrate quality as a concern throughout some firms and to ensure that it is continually monitored. If environmental considerations could be incorporated into quality concerns, this would also influence technological development (Schot 1992, pp. 48& 50).

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© 2001 Sharon Beder