One man’s freedom is another man’s unsustainable consumer

At Neo we feel it’s essential to top up our intellectual capital frequently – engines won’t run without oil, or for us, ideas. So we listened with keen interest to one of a series of online discussions on corporate sustainability held by the Guardian. It was especially interesting as one of our friends Dax Lovegrove (Head of Business and Industry relations at WWF) was part of the panel to share his wise words. By the end of discussion we found ourselves immersed in the fascinatingly complex philosophy of consumer freedom.

Consumer choice is an inevitably debate-provoking topic. Split between those who believe customer choices define the actions of business vs. those who feel business (with the added power of government regulation) possess the power to shape consumer choices for positive end goals. Chicken and the egg; business and the consumer.

When asked if we believe in unbridled freedom for the consumer, or prefer controlled markets, we may retort with a child like optimism: “freedom of choice of course”. But then we are confronted by the dangerous complexity of reality. If, for example, I propose that a food company should be free to sell poisoned porridge as it helps increase profit margins and, after all, consumers can freely choose it if they so wish, most would no doubt feel disgust. Yet in your opposition you tacitly acknowledge the need for market control.

With this in mind the Guardian debate went and opened a can of worms, introducing the concept of : “consumer choice editing”, defined as: “the active process of controlling or limiting the choices available to consumers so as to drive to an end goal”. Needless to say the idea of controlling consumers is a contentious one, viewed as blasphemy within the so called “free market democracy” of today, a legacy of the economic philosophies of Thatcher and Reagan.

Predictably the reaction to choice editing was varied and passionate, with some suggesting ‘the consumer gets what they want’ ethos of mainstream consumerism, has proved to be redundant in an era of environmental crisis. The time has come and gone for the luxury of unlimited, unsustainable choices.

So should we reluctantly pursue consumer choice editing? As many in the panel acknowledged, consumer choices are frequently limited anyway today. Supermarkets for example are “highly politicized environments” that direct us in certain directions and limit the options available to us. Therefore, when businesses claim they fear coercing consumers towards sustainable products it’s somewhat disingenuous, as this practice is already conducted.

This continued discussion prompted a simple yet subversive idea: can we not harness choice editing progressively to allow a re-imagining of the sentiment of Henry Ford: ”you can have whatever product you like providing it’s sustainable”? But would such choice limitation be an intrinsically negative practice?

Many corporations paint a dystopian picture of a world with restricted consumer choice; a bleak wasteland where children play in Soviet styled playgrounds wearing stained potato sacks. Yet instead, why don’t we imagine a bright vibrant world, with a healthy environment and a large variety of products, all of which we can confidently choose, safe in the knowledge they come from sustainable sources that aren’t harming our fellow man.

Let’s imagine a world in which business, in conjunction with government, adhered to a charter of sustainability. A charter that extended beyond existing considerations of price and quality with Triple Bottom Line principles (TBL) of People, Planet and Profit. Profit cannot be ignored within our existing economic system, but why should profit relegate all other factors that provide humanity with fulfilling lives? Consumers should equally have the freedom to choose to live in a world free from fear of environmental and social uncertainty. Business, much like the customers they claim to represent, can also choose to help consumers make the right sustainable choices. Those who fail to establish this new norm may find themselves falling by the way side in the same way Kodak did when they failed to embrace digital photography, preferring instead their previously profitable status quo. If we all fail to make these decisions we may be left with no choices at all.