Unintended Consequences of Best Intentions

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Wal-Mart’s announcement of their plans to develop a “Sustainability Index” has unloosed a spate of comments in the press and cyberspace. The bulk of these fall into three areas:

  • Is this genuine or just a sophisticated form of greenwashing?
  • What will this do for sustainability?
  • Can consumers really use the information to make “better” choices than they have been making?

I am staying out of the conversation about the first topic with one exception. Unless one has information that runs counter to the claims made by Wal-Mart or any other business project that purports to be green or greener, this judgment must come from a set of presuppositions about the general motivations of the firms in question. Given the long record of unsustainable behavior by the preponderance of firms, it is not surprising to see many question the motives of these firms. But times, they are a changing, and it is time to suspend old beliefs and look very hard at what is begin done today.

There is, however, a hidden form of greenwashing that lurks behind all these good intentions. The problem with virtually all of these green initiatives, whether coming in the design of goods and services or the provision of information that allows a buyer to be more “rational” about choice in the marketplace, is that they tend to lull the actor into believing that they are doing all that is needed to create sustainability. As I noted in a previous post, simply naming an information system a “sustainability index” is a form of greenwashing. Anything that promises more than it delivers fits this description. Sustainability is a property of complex set of relationships that cannot rationally be collapsed into any single measure. The whole global socio-techno-economic system must be functioning in a way so that people and the planet flourish. Individual actions are certainly helpful, but work only to make the situation less bad. There is not much anyone can do by reducing their ecological footprint if others do little or nothing. This is one reason it has been so difficult to reach a political decision to act unilaterally. Unless the total global carbon reduction halts the growth of greenhouses gases, the problem will continue to worsen.

Those who use the information on a label to make greener choices in the market may be fooling themselves into thinking they are doing all that is needed. It is unlikely that firms will provide enough information to educate buyers to the systems character of sustainability. Consumption itself is a root cause of the dangerous state of the world. It is hardly believable that Wal-Mart or Target or Ford will couple some sort of sustainability index with a message that the best thing to do for the Planet is not to make this purchase being contemplated, greener or not.

Green labeling is said to increase the trust of consumers in the brands and sources of the goods they buy. My question here is trust in what. Some indication that a firm cares about the environment or social issues? This process would make strides if a tipping point were to be reached where enough firms showed their concerns through their offerings that the whole system changed its values and normal practices. I believe we are a very long way from there.

What we need is a new class of ecological citizens that understand that they are part of the system and thus are part of its problems and its solutions. Indices and labels do not create changed consciousness and sense of responsibility. Values must be changed through some sort of learning process. Unfortunately, the only kind of learning currently available in the marketplace is directed at moving consumers towards “my” products and services whether they are green or trendy or cheaper or whatever. Picking out the choice with the best score teaches very little about the system. One simply needs to look at the plethora of green products to see the desire for more market share and growth as dominant. Like labeling, this feature is not necessarily a sign of bad faith, only of the force of the present system of market capitalism. Every time a local enterprise disappears under pressure from the global corporate world, sustainability gets a little farther away.

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1 Comments

King said:

How many American factories closed down due to Wal Mart purchasing from other countries?
How many American jobs were lost?
How much income was lost to Americans and much taxes lost to our Government?