"Sustainability: The Rise of Consumer Responsibility"

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This is the title of a report just issued by the Hartman Group. Here is how they describe themselves.

Consumer Insights. The Hartman Group specializes in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles and how these lifestyles influence the purchase and use of today’s products and services in tomorrow’s marketplace.

Market Research. The Hartman Group holds to an unwavering belief in the power of the consumer to drive the marketplace. We study consumers in their natural environments - their homes, their stores, their lives.

A short summary of the report can be downloaded. The report itself costs $15,000, which fact might explain why I haven’t read the whole report. The heart of the report seemed to lie in their summary of Chapter Two.

Chapter Two introduces The Hartman Group’s world perspective (i.e., the World of Sustainability), consumer attitudes toward sustainability and triggers to developing a sustainability frame of mind. Using a world perspective allows us to conceptualize consumer behavior within a world of activity, such as sustainability. Consumers are not simply “born” into the World of Sustainability. Participation in the World of Sustainability is a journey that begins attitudinally and eventually manifests through behavior. In other words, before consumers ever express their participation through behaviors and purchases, they first must develop a frame of mind to even participate in the World. As it was a year ago, we find that the notion of risk is still an important facet of sustainability consciousness for many individuals. Many consumers are concerned that something they value — be it the condition of the environment, the economy, the ethical treatment of others, and so on — is indeed at risk. Although the notion of risk is an element influencing attitudes in the realm of consciousness, risk is not the whole of sustainability consciousness. Our recent conversations with consumers reveal that consciousness may also be inspired by a sense of hope for the future, and a desire to do and to feel good.

One way of interpreting this paragraph is the idea that consumer choice is shaped by the cultural surround. I do think so and what then is critical for sustainability is exactly the “frame of mind” consumers develop. I have argued in my book that this frame of mind or set of cultural beliefs and values today lies at the root of unsustainability. The behavior it eventually creates has eroded our collective sense of our responsibility to take care of nature, other people, and ourselves. So I am quite surprised by the next paragraph from the report. I am sure that the respondents of Hartman’s surveys did utter words pointing to “the greater good.” But I am not at all sure that these speakers had much real understanding of what all this means with respect to sustainability.

The Rise of Responsibility: Regardless of whether or not consumers are acquainted with “sustainability,” or can supply a formal definition for it, we find that they often point to words and phrases that reference the greater good. Recurring terms such as “responsibility” and “doing the right thing” emerged from interviews as ways described by consumers to achieve the greater good and link economic, social, and environmental issues important to them. Thus we find that sustainability is reflected at the consumer level in a myriad of behaviors, from purchases and non-purchases, to voting and volunteerism. The notion of responsibility underscores the idea of connectedness, and addresses consumer beliefs that the right thing in one area has effects in other areas. Consumers say today that for something to be truly responsible in one way, it should not cause great detriment in another.

Responsibility as a Response to the Challenges of Today and Tomorrow: As detailed in the report, a tremendous range of topics falling under the rubric of “sustainability” link by dotted and solid lines to this unwieldy concept. While concepts and ideas like “local,” “Fair Trade,” “cruelty free,” and “transparency” can now be said to be fully operating in the cultural domain, the consumer notion of doing the right thing for the common good is an even stronger guiding principle that establishes hope, even in what seem to be hard times. Importantly, we see consumers seeking out those products, services and retail outlets that they feel represent forward-thinking, higher domain experiences within which sustainability has profound connections at personal, social and global levels. Going forward, what we find fascinating, and of great value to manufacturers, retailers and service providers, is that many of the core beliefs and aspirations surrounding sustainability behaviors represent personal journeys for consumers: These philosophically and objectively-driven travels are inspired by not only individual hope for higher quality experiences and standards of living for themselves and their communities, but are quickly becoming a broadly focused expectation to find such qualities reflected in the stores, employees, brands and products they buy, interact with and use on an everyday basis.

If everything in the parts of the report publicly available does truly represent the attitudes and behavioral norms of many consumers, then perhaps we are starting on a new path toward sustainability. I remain skeptical simply because consumption itself is a symptom of the unsustainable culture we live within. To do good through consumption is probably only a case of doing less bad. Sustainability rests on shifting the “higher quality experiences” from connectedness with goods to connectedness with others and the world.

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1 Comments

Scott Bearse said:

John,
I'll send you our report (Deloitte/GMA) "Finding the Green in Today's Shopper" based on direct in-store customer interviews of 6500 customers with 11 participating retailers for free. I suspect no one will want to pay $15,000 to read the self important, rubbish I read above in the exerpt.

Drop me an e-mail and I'll attach it.

Scott