Sustainability Needs Educated Consumers
I repeatedly suggest that one of the largest barriers to a more sustainable economy is ignorance. Most people are simply not aware of the problems, let alone the solutions, and as such the pitch for a different lifestyle (call is environmentally sound, ecologically efficient or simply “green”) can be a tough sell. So if the problem is a lack of education who is responsible for fixing it? We are quick to point fingers at tech companies, developers, car manufacturers—the producers of “stuff” that we consume to keep our economy afloat. But at the end of the day we cannot pile all of the onus on entities and organizations to force information onto us, we too have a responsibility to seek it out for ourselves.
The rise in communication technology has transformed the conveyance of information between the suppliers and consumers in every corner of the marketplace. So much of sales is a race to spoon feed a product option to a hungry audience before others can penetrate the market. As a result, as consumers, the information often comes to us. Companies work to make the discovery of their product solutions as easy as possible in order to remove pesky exercises like comparison or prioritization. In the past decade we have become inundated with information enough for its transcendence into the realm of cultural norm.
When it comes to a new phone, MP3 player or an automobile, the consumer can easily shrug and say, “if you haven’t told me enough about your gizmo how do you expect me to buy it?” In an economy where consumer spending accounts for the majority of GDP, companies often submit to such rules and pour money into marketing. If both sides want to continue this love/hate relationship then that is all fine and good in the realm of consumer discretionary products and personal luxuries, but the practice can instigate a dangerous level of expectation and hinder progressive change.
We arrive at an encompassing topic like sustainability with qualities and goals that exist outside of the typical, seasonal product lines. The unique differences in green choices are often not visual, but hidden in parts of interconnected processes that most of us take for granted or are simply not interested in (production, packaging, distribution, etc.) The story behind these products is only part of the story for why they are so important, all of which is difficult to fit on a magazine page or a thirty-second sound byte. Consequently, consumer education of sustainability has been slow as Americans continue to wait to be guided to better options.
Well, we can do a bit more than that.
The same systems that have exponentially increased in their ability to let others bring information to us still work just as well, if not better, the other way. The internet alone allows for a grade school student to instantly access more information that someone could have found in a lifetime fifty years ago. As members of numerous overlapping groups, societies and ecosystems we cannot only wait for the answers—we have to meet them half way.
Companies in every sector of the economy are poised to provide new solutions for how we live our lives; they are waiting to meet a demand that has every reason to shift. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffery Ball points out that:
“Never before has there been such a flowering of practical energy-saving products, from double-pane windows to front-loading washing machines to hybrid gasoline-and-electric cars.”
So what are we waiting for? Government intervention? A return to higher oil prices? As it turns out, we are going to get those anyway.There is no shortage of resources to learn about sustainability and new alternatives to social trends. Tens of thousands of people devote time and money to websites, organizations, lectures and expos to promote the spread of information. The eager soul need not look far to learn.
The next phase in societal change towards a more sustainable economy can be instigated by consumers gaining a bit of knowledge for themselves and using it to craft the marketplace that they have control over. Change is closer than most people believe—in no small part because the case for change is so strong—but its traction lies in the transition from companies trying to meet a need that consumers don’t know enough to demand, to companies striving to meet the demand of educated consumers.
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