Ethically correct consumption alone will not save the world. Those are bad news but good news at the same time. The reason is – and you will realize it from the beginning of this complex topic – this question cannot be answered easily but in the end there is an amazing outcome. However, step by step.
Take a look at the big picture: no difference?
As soon as a person takes a deep look at this complex topic, he will realize that it is extremely important to understand all the influencing factors and mechanisms driving the market. Currently, the trend is all about “green shopping”: more and more consumers want to buy more ecological and socially acceptable products. That is caused by the hope to be able to make a change for the environment and the social structures within the production chain.
That affects the market’s behavior. From the trendy organic businesses on the corner up to the discounters’ own fair trade brand, fair and sustainable groceries can be now purchased everywhere– as we know, the demand causes the supply. However, are we talking about a moment of real change or is it just “Greenwashing” at the end of the day – like an attempt of a positive self-presentation by offering and selling sustainable products?
It is a fact that a change is visible. This slowly rising change of the consumers’ behavior is generally great but here comes the first catch: To cause a real turning point, the niche phenomenon of the green shopping revolution has to turn out as a mass phenomenon. In Europe, 5-10% of the consumers buy ecological and socially acceptable products. However, the number is only going to rise if different factors are given. One of the most important factors is the people’s income, which would have to be increased because this green shopping behavior only becoming more noticeable among the middle class.
On top of that, the moral pressure of constantly buying the “right” products that is on those few consumers is increasing. Dr. Phil. Bernd Mayerhofer who teaches political theory and history of ideas at the University of political science in Munich sums up the fact that the single person has to fix what politics and the community have failed to do (namely, saving the world) as follows: “the saving of the world lies on the shoulders of the individual”.
Basically, there is something fundamentally wrong – and here we come directly to the second catch: It is not just about the consumers who should or are able to save the world. Policy and economy should and have to help in the same way, and not putting all the burden of the current circumstances on the citizens’ shoulders. The philosopher and physician Armin Grundwald talks here about a hopeless excessive demand of the individual that would irresponsibly relieve the policy. Even if the majority of consumers would be able to relieve the environment by living an absolutely correct shopping behavior, it would not be enough-because then the paradox of the “technical-ecological systems” would strike, which mediate between the good deed and its consequences: Those who reduce their energy consumption, for example, contribute to steel or aluminium plants emitting more carbon dioxide in a certificate trading system,” says Grundwald. His conclusion is that sustainability is not a private concern, but a public task. To be able to cope with this public task, a political change of orientation is necessary. On the other hand, the individual can have a say in a democracy. So it is not so much a question of personal ecological behavior but more about the overall societal commitment as a whole – which in turn depends on the former, because people who are not interested in sustainability in their private lives will not be working for it collectively either. The Federal Environmental Agency summarizes that fact in one statement: “For implementing the aim of a sustainable structuring of society, a change in the pattern of consumption is essential. The question of whether the individual’s buying decision makes a change can be clearly answered with: yes – but indirectly.
Take a look at the detail: a difference!
The more you look into this topic’s theory the more confusing it gets. Especially, if consumers are informed before making a purchase decision, but then often receive the information that one or the other certification is not as productive or sustainable as they expected, it is important to be aware of the following facts: organic and sustainability certifications and their programs just started existing compared to different products. Collecting data is a cumbersome process and getting the correct numbers from all those agricultural operations and forests around the world is quite difficult, expensive and takes years. Usable research results come slowly and never had any kind priority in the public focus so far. Moreover, it is absolutely normal that mistakes often occur when a new movement is being created. Every new beginning only has its own magic, but also a certain vulnerability to errors. In order to motivate oneself to make sustainable purchasing decisions and to see concrete impacts, a look at practical experience helps: a relatively new and extensive survey about sustainability was published in 2012 and deals with 2,100 certificated coffee farms in Colombia. This study proves that these farms are home to a variety of endangered species, have higher biodiversity and healthier rivers, the farmers earn higher income and are twice as productive as non-certified farmers. This is not an isolated case. We at fairafric also consistently show you, our customers, the tremendous impacts that our chocolate makes and the benefits it brings: Thanks to your buying decision, we are able to establish the fair value chain in Ghana, pay fair wages, offer training and employment, preserve the environment through organic farming and thereby promote biodiversity. Thanks to your purchase of fairafric chocolate, “our” farmers can use the additional income they receive through our incentives to send their children to school and to build better homes. In addition, they are joining forces with us – and indirectly with you – against the global supply chains that do care neither the people nor the environment.
So you see, the conclusion that sustainable consumption is ineffective is a false one. The answer is just not straightforward.