Information failures

The second problematic area of the mainstream approach to sustainable consumption concerns information failures. Neo-classical economics, on which this policy is based, is predicated on the assumption that consumers are fully informed, rational, selfish, and weigh up all their options before choosing to make a purchase (Lipsey and Harbury, 1992). Governments aim to support this demand-side driver for change through a range of consumer information tools such as awareness-raising campaigns and various certification and labelling schemes which indicate the environmental and/or social performance of a product on the supermarket shelves. These labels include the Fairtrade mark for providing sustainable livelihoods to producers, Soil Association organic standards which indicate limited use of pesticides and fertilisers, the Forest Stewardship Council trademark for sustainable forestry, the European Energy Label which rates the efficiency of consumer appliances such as fridges and washing machines, and the European Ecolabel (the flower symbol) which covers a wide range of product life-cycle impacts (DEFRA, 2007b; European Commission, 2004). But despite these efforts to improve consumer awareness and support environmental decision-making, consumers still face several information barriers before they can act on their preferences in the market. First, the products they are considering may not be subject to social or eco-labelling; the EU Ecolabel has been operating since 1992 years and due to the complexity of developing and applying full life-cycle standards, is still slowly increasing its sectoral coverage (European Commission, 2004). Second, the credibility and consistency of sustainability labels is a key problem, as the plethora of labels and standards can be confusing, with unsubstantiated corporate green claims sitting shoulder to shoulder with rigorous multi-stakeholder certifications in the supermarket (Holdsworth, 2003). Previous trends towards green consumerism were derailed partly because of a perceived lack of credibility in green claims, and so simple, clear, authoritative and consistent labelling across sectors is needed (Childs and Whiting, 1998).

In addition to these market instruments, governments instigate public awareness campaigns aim to educate consumers about the impacts of their consumption and provoke behaviour change, from early 'wake up to what you can do for the environment' exhortations, to more recent efforts to promote more fuel-efficient driving habits (DoE, 1993; DfT, 2007). However recent research indicates that the 'top-down' delivery of expert information is not well received by the public - the truth, reliability and credibility of the source of the information is consistently brought into question by individuals receiving it (Hobson, 2002; see also Burgess et al., 2003). Furthermore, environmental information does not simply flow from experts to lay people, rather it is processed and questioned and filtered by everyday experience to produce a complex two-way interactive production of knowledge - quite different to the learning process presupposed by the experts. Hobson concludes that the way individuals 'think about and address changing their lifestyles, and how they consider the current framing of the environmental problematique, all contrast markedly with the prevailing positivist assumptions underlying policy strategies' (Hobson, 2002: 205). This suggests that the basis of information campaigning is inadequate for its purpose, and deserves greater consideration of both its content and its context, in order to be more effective.

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