It’s hard to be a conscious consumer! We all know that higher prices prohibit us from consuming sustainably. But the barriers facing the conscious consumer go well beyond costs and need to be considered from the perspective of a highly resilient system of interconnected forces that collectively make consumer responsibility analogous to climbing the proverbial waterfall.
Aside from higher costs, here is a list of some of the barriers I’ve faced on a regular basis:
1) Transferability: being able to consume responsibly depends on whether the product in question can be used in other contexts. Consider the use of non-disposable diapers that have important benefits for the health of children not to mention environmental benefits if washed properly. While a conscious consumer may decide to use these at home, they may not be permitted at a daycare where children spend a majority of their waking hours. Although my daycare does change our reusable diapers, no matter how much we try to educate them, they continue to send the diapers home to us in layers and layers of plastic bags with the diaper covers mixed in with the soiled diapers. So not only are we disposing of the bags but we’re having to soak and wash the diaper covers in hot water; nullifying a good portion of the environmental benefits originally gained. Also, traveling with reusable diapers is a huge hassle as baby change rooms and stations are equipped to make the change process as smooth as possible only if you’re using disposable diapers. The broader point here is that the responsible consumer is a bit of an outcast where any effort to extend their behaviour to other contexts is often met with resistance from those more comfortable with the existing system of behaviour.
2) Standard Differentials: Sticking with the daycare theme, there is no doubt that the diet served at daycares is an important criterion for parents when choosing which daycare to leave their children at. However, interpretations of what is healthy or environmental vary substantially, meaning that highly progressive consumers will likely have to accept the fact that their daycare’s version of healthy and sustainable food options is of a much lower standard at best or misinformed at worst. It drives me nuts that my son has two arrowroot cookies, caked with sugar, on a daily basis. Do I prohibit them from feeding him these cookies at the expense of isolating him from his friends, making him a target for bullying down the road?
3) Peer Pressure to be Irresponsible: this brings me to my next point. While still on children, no matter how environmental we want to be as parents, we have to respect the importance of our son feeling accepted by his peers. Kids will be judged on what brand names they have in their lunches or on the clothes they’re wearing and thus a target of bullying for being different. Despite how much we might teach our kids to be responsible, what do we do when they need to decide between responsible and bullied? Even as adults, this peer pressure exists. We are often perceived as stubborn environmentalists because we supposedly impose inconveniences on our peers and colleagues to the point where we often find it easier to temporarily do away with our principles. It’s so much easier to join the fun and stuff our faces with bacon and balk at those picky eaters with their pesky principles.
4) Gifts: We all enjoy getting gifts. But oftentimes the gifts we receive are from people who might not be aware of one’s environmental and social standards. We regularly receive articles of clothing for our kids with messages pushing inappropriate stereotypes that we would prefer to avoid. These gestures are not at all insincere, they are instead a product of a perverse and highly complicated system of misinformation or lack thereof that even the most environmentally aware of us struggles to decipher. My mother has worked so hard to find the products for our little guy that conform to certain standards but no doubt it’s a lot of effort because this information is not readily available. You really have to dig and then once you’ve dug to identify the products' chemical ingredients, for example, you then have to dig further to figure out what they are and whether they have been tested for safety. So the gift receiver faces a dilemma. Do we insult our gift givers by giving away these gifts or telling them that we would prefer that they do more research before buying us anything. Or do we lower our standards and suck it up?
5) Living Arrangements: I live in an apartment that doesn’t yet have the composting infrastructure necessary to avoid throwing food waste in the trash unnecessarily. We tried a number of ways to conveniently dispose of our compost. I first trucked our weekly bag of compost up to my place of employment, which has compost bins scattered around the property. But they are not set up for such large disposals. I then set out to get my hands on a Toronto Green bin only to learn that you need to provide explicit proof that you live in a residence (not an apartment).
As another example, today’s modern residential development is designed around the operation of a motor vehicle. Unlike decades ago when neighbourhoods were designed along a grid formation with small retail villages nearby at walking distance, today’s subdivisions are massive plots of land with an intricate network of circular roads all leading to a common exit to the main road. This oasis of houses means that catching public transit requires a 20-25 minute walk to this main road while finding basic sustenance requires a 30-40 minute walk to get to one of a dozen box stores at the corner of a major intersection. These massive complexes require an additional 10 minutes just to walk across the massive parking lot and another 20 minutes to get to the other side of the complex. Can you picture your neighbour passing you in her car wondering why you’re walking like a homeless person to the store while she’s moving her car down the parking lot as she makes her way from store to store?
6) Lack of Availability: I’ve found it difficult on many occasions to simply find retail locations that have sustainable products, leaving us at the mercy of what products exist on the shelves. Although there are many green brands out there, many of them purposefully choose not to have bulk containers, forcing you to purchase their smaller plastic equivalent on a regular basis. In a previous blog post, I’ve discussed the challenges of finding something healthy to eat walking down most streets. Try stopping at any of the major service stations on major highways and you’re locked in a bubble of toxic processed fast food with the healthiest option being Subway’s sugar infused bread that smells like, as Jon Stewart once said, like a loaf of bread vomited. Or you've likely found yourself at the mercy of the choices available at the mall food court. Imagine a single parent with very little time and two or three starving kids. He's staring at the options in the food court trying to figure out which represents the best of all unhealthy evils contributing to his children's level of obesity. It's either let them starve or have them eat toxic food.
7) Information Asymmetry: Consider how hard it is to find information about a product or service to learn about its social and environmental consequences. Consider cosmetics where companies hide behind the veil of their rights to protect intellectual property to avoid displaying the ingredients of their products. What is more, because entire industries adopt this practice, the above issue of availability emerges again as consumers are left without other options. What’s worse is when companies attempt to improve their products yet create more problems than it resolves. I’ve heard countless stories from consumers who talk about the fact that they thought they were buying the responsible product or service yet only learned later that it was worse than the original. In their efforts to respond to growing demand for more sustainable products, companies use a reductionist approach by isolating and replacing the toxic chemical of the day and replacing it with something else. Yet the something else is likely understudied and/or it produces unintended consequences as it reacts with other ingredients.
8) Poor Infrastructure: Don’t you find it so tempting to toss recycled waste or compost into the trash bin? We build kitchens with the trash bin conveniently located under the sink most often with the recycle bin in the garage or outside. On top of that, we need to sort out the recycle and deal with rinsing out the containers. Why bother? This is a major hindrance in apartment buildings where walking your recycle bin all the way downstairs and disposing it in a large bin in your underwear at -30 degrees is killer next to throwing it all down the garbage chute 10 steps down the hall. Perhaps this one is similar to added cost but the point is that our infrastructure today was mostly built at a time of waste, waste, waste.
Many conscious consumers are at the mercy of the substandard building code of decades past as they literally feel the warm air in the winter and the cooler air in the summer escape outside. It drives me absolutely bonkers that my son’s bedroom is 28 degrees in the middle of winter, requiring that I turn on the air conditioner. Can you believe that? Air conditioner in February? Opening the window isn’t an option because it invites immense amounts of condensation and moisture resulting in mold.
Leaving aside those consumes who prefer to be irresponsible, people often wonder why well-intended consumers don’t more actively vote with their dollars. The problem is that shifting disposable income to more sustainable products is only one piece of the puzzle. Consumers need to take on a system that has multiple highly interconnected parts that reinforce each other to produce a pattern of unsustainable behaviour. Consider for instance the amount of time, effort, and inconvenience it would take for a consumer to overcome the above challenges? Add to this a highly competitive workplace environment where a responsible consumer is competing against people who are completely fine with being irresponsible.
The good news is that once enough consumers climb the proverbial waterfall, a tipping point will ensue where the system shifts in a way that fosters supportive infrastructure, the availability of information, the availability of sustainable products and services and an increase in general standards. We’re just not there yet.