An Inconvenient Truth: Does Responsible Consumption Benefit Corporations More Than Society? Are environmental and social problems such as global warming and poverty the result of inadequate governmental regulations or does the burden fall on our failure as consumers to make better consumption choices?
A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that responsible consumption shifts the burden for solving global problems from governments to consumers and ultimately benefits corporations more than society.
“When businesses convince politicians to encourage responsible consumption instead of implementing policy changes to solve environmental and social problems, business earns the license to create new markets while all of the pressure to solve the problem at hand falls on the individual consumer,” says Schulich School of Business Professor Markus Giesler authored the paper along with Ela Veresiu, a visiting doctoral student at Schulich.
“For example, global warming is blamed on consumers unwilling to make greener choices rather than the failure of governments to regulate markets to the benefit of society and the environment,” he says.
The Giesler and Veresiu studied the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to examine the influence of economic elites on the creation of four types of responsible consumers: the bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer, the green consumer, the health-conscious consumer and the financially literate consumer.
They identified a process that shifts responsibility from the state and corporations to the individual consumer. First, economic elites redefine the nature of the problem from political to one of individual consumption (for example, global warming stems from consumers failing to cultivate a sustainable lifestyle). Next, economic elites promote the idea that the only viable solution is for consumers to change their behavior. Third, new markets are created in order to turn this solution into a material reality (eco-friendly light bulbs, hybrid automobiles, energy efficient appliances). Finally, consumers must adopt this new ethical self-understanding.
“The implications of our study are far-reaching and relevant for consumers and policy makers alike. While the responsible consumption myth offers a powerful vision of a better world through identity-based consumption, upon closer inspection, this logic harbors significant personal and societal costs,” says Veresiu.
“The responsible consumption myth promotes the idea that governments can never achieve harmony between competing economic and social or environmental goals and that this instead requires a global community of morally enlightened consumers who are empowered to make a difference through the marketplace.”
The study, “Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity,” was published online in the Journal of Consumer Research and is upcoming in the October print edition.