Should we have a choice?

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As citizen of Switzerland, an industrialized country, I wonder what my country can contribute to the problem of resource scarcity. We have a strong responsibility towards the other inhabitants of this Earth, since Switzerland’s footprint is more than four times larger than its biocapacity.

We need to initiate a drastic change in our way of consumption. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what do I do for this? I am a student, low income, when I enter the supermarket, I automatically look at the cheaper range of products. And what do I see? Apples from New Zealand, pears form South Africa, meat from Brazil. Interesting. Does Switzerland not produce apples or pears? Do we not have cattle? So explain me why we are at all given this choice?

You may say: “What is the problem? You have the choice, just choose the environmental friendly products!” Well, I cannot make an informed choice, I lack information for that. Bruno Oberle, Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, listed steps to move towards a sustainable resource use. Giving more information to consumers was one of them.

But I wonder: Is a better information for consumers a viable solution? Do consumers behave responsibly, even with complete knowledge? Think about it: you see a yummy tuna sandwich in the bakery: does the thought of overfishing ever come to your mind? Or when you change your 2 year old mobile phone for the latest model available, do you ever think that the electronic waste might be dismantled and disposed in a country without any safe infrastructure or proper environmental care? Are you not tempted to choose meat from Brazil, when local, organic meat costs double the price? Well, with a little shame, I admit that sometimes I am.

As mentioned by Mr. Oberle, the (minority) fraction of the society who is best educated and well-off is likely to chose the ecological (and expensive) product, while the rest needs other incentives. Hence, giving the choice to pay for the externalities is not effective if we want society as a whole to become sustainable. We urgently need our decision-makers to bring us towards using our resources in a sustainable way. And not by choice, because we do not have this choice anymore.

Source thumbnail: www.worldmapper.org

9 thoughts on “Should we have a choice?

  1. Interesting point you’re bringing up here. Actually, as a student by myself, I’m sometimes confronted with the same problem. However, I get the impression that there is enough information around to make an informed decision. The problem is more the time consumption and the accessibility of the information. The question is how we can make it more convenient to use the information.
    You mentioned correctly the externalities as part of the solution. Once we are able to internalize the external effects into the prices (perhaps through taxes on non-renewable resources as proposed today by Prof. Stahel), the ecological products will be the logical choice.

  2. But one thing I have always wondered about the wide availability of oragnic local foods in Switzerland- is this because the local farmers are subsidised so much?

    I love the range of local bio foods here- Swit-zerland does provide amazing choices, but I’m just not sure it’s transparent choice of if we are protecting the environment or hindering other markets from developing.

  3. I totally agree with your statement. Informations for consumers are important but not sufficient at all.

    When your standing in a shop it is – even when your informed – still tricky to choose along all the available products. Helps are for example smartphone apps (http://www.wwf.ch/de/tun/aktivwerden/ratgeber_app/, cost-free available), or a websites (for example http://www.nachhaltigleben.ch/essen-trinken/). Of course, labels are also helpful, especially when the sortiment is very big. One easy trick is to buy food at an organic shop which sells regional, seasonal, and mostly vegetarian food. But as you said, here comes the price into the game.

    Mostly, organic food is more expensive. But that’s because the true costs are not included in the non-organic food. That follows the demand we have heared often at the conference: Make the prices right!
    So it is a (at least for most Swiss) a question of priorities if they spent the money for organic food or not. But this decision shouldn’t only be made be the wide public but also by the industry and the government.

    So let’s make the prices right – which means non-environmental friendly products have to cost more than the for example organic ones. This would mean that the consumer still could buy the cheapest product. But the cheapest would be the best for our environment!

    • It would be great if non environmentally friendly products would cost more to reflect their negative impact on the environment, but the million dollar question is, how you can realise such a shift in pricing? Consumer education alone is not enough to address this issue as people will always try to save money when shopping. And companies will always try to meet consumers needs by finding ways to keep their pricing competitive. By establishing manufacturing centres in the developing world, they take advantage of cheap labour and relaxed environmental laws in order to pass on lower prices to consumers in the West. Our current economic and financial systems clearly stand in the way of a substantial shift in pricing to reflect greater environmental impact, so either the system has to change or governments need to step in. What role do you see for governments or regulatory bodies in this process?

  4. @Elissa, I think that regulatory bodies need to create stringent regulations, while encouraging even better corporate behavior. For example, in the US, companies need to obtain a permit to discharge waste into waterways. These permits are easy to get and lack a lot of oversight. Problems like oil and chemical spills can go unnoticed for days. I think a solution to this is to use technology to create real-time data monitoring on outputs into waterways, but the government lacks funding for this. We need to charge companies for regulations, and also commit to environmental security. Of course, there are those who argue that policy should not be command-control (meaning, strict regulations) but rather encouraging of sustainable behavior (i.e. fewer taxes for more sustainable companies). I think we could do both, but we need to tighten up loopholes in taxes and environmental regulations first so that companies are forced to stop polluting and escaping paying for environmental harms.

    In all, I think it’s probably more important for policy and companies to act, instead of the consumer. The consumer is overwhelmed by information. Even if things are labeled, what does it mean? We have the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, for example, which has a friendly green leaf on its products. But SFI is run by forestry companies and has been criticized frequently. The educated and involved consumer will probably take the time to investigate labels, but I don’t think the average person will due to a lack of education, lack of time, lack of access to information, etc.

    • I agree….the onus should lie with corporate governance and public policy, more so than just the consumer. there are too many people around the world who are only concerned with the price, and would not benefit from stringent labeling. in addition to policy that impacts corporate behaviour, its imperative that our financial geniuses figure out how to incorporate environmental impact into financial statements, for unless and until corporations feel the pinch in their pockets, they will make little effort to change their ways.

      by the way, its Eissa without the ‘L’… 😉

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