Rethinking models

The funny thing about all the attention being on national targets to slash carbon emissions is that it often leaves the question of ‘how’ in the shadows (apart from big things like tar sands or emissions trading). Unlike many other areas searching for international cooperation, policy to meet carbon targets is an uncertain science – that is, it takes more than a piece of legislation and central edict for it to happen. The incentives have to be put in, the price signals made right…and then a bit of waiting and praying that it all comes together to deliver the expected reductions. It’s challenging because of this all-encompassing nature sweeping through society that places obligations upon individuals, private entities (including those that work across borders), the state, and society, which is quite unlike changing trade rules, or addressing overfishing, for instance.

In another Green Futures briefing last month I survey a major speech by Tesco CEO Terry Leahy a few months ago on Tesco’s zero-carbon vision. The actual speech itself makes for good reading amidst grandiose ambition (zero-carbon by 2050, not just an 80% reduction), but it points to an important, but largely underspecified debate in addressing the ‘how’ question. For all the discussion that comes through about working with suppliers and taking aim at their own emissions from building and transport, the overwhelming emphasis is on customer empowerment. Now, that’s not surprising – he might be out of a job soon if ‘growing the business’ wasn’t the most important thing. But how much can we count on the consumer to actually make choices that take us towards a low-carbon future?

A case in point is another short piece on shifts in Sweden towards greater carbon-labelling in foods, including on everyday items like burgers and grain. But what happens next? It’s tempting to think that everyone will take the greener, more ethical choice when rationally confronted with the information. That assumes, however, that people care enough to actually take this extra bit of information into account when making their choices. Those of us who do care enough will look out for this extra information, like looking out for Fairtrade or Marine Stewardship Council logos. But I think that most don’t, because it depends on a prior exposure to information about unfair trade or overfishing that generates concern at all, which is often an awfully slow process.

So ‘information’ alone is a bit of a illusory solution. What makes a bigger difference is when that decision is taken away from us, so that green is the basic option. Just as we expect human rights to be respected in the garment industry, why not basic environmental standards? The jargon for this is ‘choice editing’ – retailers themselves making the choice to edit out the unsustainable choices for us.

The reality, of course, is somewhere in between this – the Leahy speech, to be fair, talks about breaking down the price barrier, so green goods are on a cost equivalent to the less-green version. But when writing this, the most challenging thought to our model of consumption and economic activity came in the remarks from an expert observer (see the Tesco piece):

Tesco “has been very much about doing what they’ve always done, but in a greener way, relying on this ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’ model. In a sustainable world, they’ll need to come up with a way of making money but ultimately sell less stuff.”


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