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  • Are you a conscientious consumer?

    DATE: 06/06/2018

    Published by: Novonor

    The first step of consuming conscientiously is to inform yourself on the subject and to incorporate reflection, planning and initiative into your regular activities.

    During this week when World Environment Day is commemorated, we suggest taking a few minutes to understand how you can become a more conscientious consumer and, why not, a multiplier of knowledge and an example among family and friends!

    To dive into the subject, we talked with Helio Mattar, president of the Akatu Institute, an NGO that is a reference in raising awareness and mobilizing society towards conscientious consumerism.

    Read the interview below:

    How is the issue of consumption related to the concept of sustainable cities?

    Even if the general perception is that the decision to consume is individual, consuming is in fact a social practice insofar as it depends on the set of possibilities offered or not, by the environment in which consumption happens. As such, consumption is dependent on the products and services offered by companies, which limits consumers’ choice. At the same time, consumption depends on government decisions, whether in the form of infrastructure that limits or expands the possibility of the product or service reaching the consumer or in the form of levying taxes on goods and services. In this case, when taxes are levied on less sustainable products, their prices rise and this drives consumption towards more sustainable products.

    To illustrate consumers’ dependence on actions by businesses, even if a consumer is more conscientious and prefers packaging made from renewable plastics, this option only was made possible when Braskem launched the material in the market.

    From the government standpoint, for example, it is essential to offer citizens a mobility infrastructure that includes safe bike paths so that the choice to use a bicycle for urban mobility can be made by individuals.

    So, in the case of a more sustainable city, many possibilities for conscientious consumerism must be accessible by consumers, whether in the purchase, use or disposal of the product or service.

    Do cities stimulate consumption?

    Consumption, especially when exaggerated, is provoked by advertising, which encourages it, and by the recognition given by social groups to its members by means of what and how they consume.

    Therefore, to the extent that cities enable permanent exposure to consumer goods, they can provoke an additional impulse for the desire to consume. Of course, this stimulus does not come from the city itself, but from the possibilities that cities offer because of their high population densities.

    On the other hand, cities can also foster sustainability by uniting its residents given their proximity to one another.

    So, to the same extent that density and people’s proximity in a city can lead to more unsustainable consumption, it also can lead to more conscientious and sustainable consumption. This is especially true if the municipal government opts to create conditions and to influence the planning, accessibility, pricing and publicity of products and services to ensure that consumption choices are stimulated to move in a more sustainable direction.

    When does consumption become unsustainable?

    Actually, consumption already is unsustainable today. Around 20% of the world’s population accounts for around 80% of all consumption, which means that there is a large share of humanity that does not have access to consumption that enables a decent life or that cannot even consume the bare minimum required to live, with no good prospects for material progress.

    That in itself is unsustainable, since this enormous inequality in consumption reflects very different access to opportunities and possibilities, giving rise to social tensions that making human coexistence more challenging.

    At the same time, even with this concentration of consumption in the hands of such a small portion of the population, natural resources already are being exploited in a proportion that is 70% higher than what the planet is able to regenerate.

    Hence the problems caused by global warming stemming from the planet’s incapacity to absorb all of the carbon emitted by agriculture, industrial and transportation activities; water quality problems arising from the withdrawal of groundwater at rates higher than the water can regenerate and water pollution in many parts of the world; the problems associated with the fact that around 35% of arable land has been deteriorated due to inadequate use; and the problems of absorbing the waste generated by production and consumption, which has caused problems ranging from garbage in the oceans and in regions that have become recipients of various types of waste, such as electronics.
    Current consumption, although concentrated in the hands of one-fifth of humankind, is already unsustainable with regard to both the consumption model and the production model.

    How can we learn to consume responsibly?

    When we think about more responsible consumption, there is an assumption that consumption is irresponsible. We at Akatu prefer to say that consumption is unconscientious rather than irresponsible, given the belief that consumers, upon learning about the impacts of consumption and the possibility of using it as a “vote,” can choose the best possible impacts on society and the environment. They can change the way that they consume and gradually establish more-sustainable characteristics for the society in which they want to live, with economic prosperity, greater social justice and more respect for the environment.

    This means a different kind of consumption, rather than less consumption. In fact, what matters is the well-being generated by consumption in the lives of consumers and not consumption itself.

    For example, buying durable products instead of disposable ones and repairing, updating and refurbishing products until they no longer can be used are ways to respect natural resources. In this way, the impacts from exploiting and processing these natural resources are diluted over a long period rather than concentrated in a short period.

    The opposite of this behavior is clearly seen in the rate at which people exchange smartphones. Whether due to pressure from carriers or the obsolescence forced by manufacturers (new design, new features even if unnecessary, impossibility of repair), consumers exchange smartphones within a much shorter time than their useful life would allow.

    You have to create new solutions, such as sharing the use of products. Does each of us need in our homes a full set of household tools? Or could we have community centers (in buildings or homeowners associations) where toolkits would be available for use by everyone?

    And how do you learn to consume differently? The way Akatu sees it, this should begin at school and at home, where the values are instilled that will guide a child or youth in their future life as an adult. Knowledge and role models are fundamental so that the value to be formed is that of respect for natural resources and society.

    What can we adopt as good habits of conscientious consumerism in our daily lives?

    Consumption can be more conscientious when buying, using and disposing of products or services. To guide consumers, Akatu came up with six simple questions that when asked and answered with a concern for sustainability result in consumption that is more conscientious.

     

    In general, how do you see the evolution in responsible consumption in Brazil and the world? Are consumers more conscientious?

    There is no doubt that consumers have been gradually becoming more sensitive to social and environmental issues in both Brazil and the world.

    Curiously, all of the surveys conducted in various countries show that Brazilians are more sensitive to social and environmental issues, even if this sensitivity exists in all of the countries surveyed.

    However, companies often doubt this fact because they expect one specific action or one small set of sustainability actions to be enough to boost sales in the short term and make people see their brands as sustainable. That’s not the case.

    A good way to understand the process is described in the Global Corporate Social Responsibility Study conducted by Cone Communications and Ebiquity in 2015, which shows how global consumers see corporate social responsibility and clearly reflects this social and environmental sensitivity:

    “Today’s consumers are more demanding than ever when it comes to corporate social responsibility. Armed with a growing understanding of the impacts caused by corporations, consumers are ready to influence efforts in the area of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This higher sophistication also increases the pressure on companies for them to use their sustainability differentials as competitive edges. Since most consumers around the world believe that CSR is a basic requirement and is already a part of the day-to-day activities of corporations, many will only pay attention in extreme cases: on the positive side, in the caser of companies that go beyond ‘business as usual’ or, on the negative side, in the case of companies that have their reputations tarnished by scandals or whistleblowing. So, always innovating in social and environmental issues is indispensable for building and maintaining a good reputation before consumers.”

    The same study reveals information on Brazilian consumers:

    “Brazilian consumers lead the rankings in participating in CSR efforts by companies and demonstrate a personal passion for addressing social and environmental issues in their lives. In this context, it can be harder for companies to stand out positively before this group. According to the data collected in the survey, companies must first help their consumers understand the specific terminology and then exceed their clients’ expectations.”

    So clearly, for consumers around the world, what companies are doing to improve their social and environmental impacts is very crucial. The question is what expectations companies can have regarding the results of communicating these actions so that the conscientious consumer can appreciate them and choose the products of the most socially responsible companies.

    The Cone study indicates that you need to do something extraordinary and to communicate clearly, as did Patagonia, a U.S.-based apparel company, which advertised a jacket on Black Friday by saying, “Do not buy this jacket,” thus provoking consumers to ask themselves if they really needed a new jacket, if they couldn’t fix the one they already had or if they couldn’t buy a used one before deciding on purchasing a new one. This made Patagonia known almost worldwide for having distanced itself from “business as usual.” However, given the difficulty in doing something extraordinary, the path for companies that are doing their homework in sustainability is to act consistently and persistently in the long run in their sustainability actions.

    On the other hand, in the consumption aspects complementary to the purchase, which are use and disposal, consumers demonstrated in their routine actions that they are incorporating new habits and behaviors. Studies conducted by Akatu show that while saving remains an important factor in usage decisions (more than 70% of the consumers strive to save resources such as water and electricity), around 45% try to plan their shopping for food and clothes and nearly 30% recycle their waste and also tell friends and family about the companies and products that they prefer. A scenario that certainly is encouraging for sustainability.

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