An inconvenient truth: Does responsible consumption benefit corporations more than society?

From the University of Chicago Press Journals  |

responsible-consAre 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? According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, 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. 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,” write authors Markus Giesler and Ela Veresiu (both York University).

The authors studied the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in order 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.

The authors 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. 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 authors conclude.

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Markus Giesler and Ela Veresiu. “Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity.” Journal of Consumer Research: October 2014. For more information, contact Markus Giesler (mgiesler@schulich.yorku.ca) or visit http://ejcr.org/.

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49 thoughts on “An inconvenient truth: Does responsible consumption benefit corporations more than society?

  1. For example, global warming is blamed on consumers unwilling to make greener choices….

    I’m sure they will define what those greener choices are for us……in the mean time, who exactly are they addressing this kumbaya BS to? People watching Oprah and the View?…..or people cutting other people’s heads off?

  2. “… failure of governments to regulate markets to the benefit of society and the environment.”

    Wow! At what point did this become one of the tasks of government? This is deeply disturbing.

  3. ” …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 …”

    Oh, how terrible. We’d be creating new jobs and new products without permission from central planning!

    “…while all of the pressure to solve the problem at hand falls on the individual consumer….”

    OMG, we can’t allow INDIVIDUALS to make their OWN decisions! INDIVIDUALS can’t be responsible!

  4. “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? ”
    What a way to bait the question. Poverty for example is caused neither by consumers making bad choices, nor by lack of government regulation, in fact I would argue that poverty is caused by government overregulation.
    Global warming isn’t even caused primarily by humans so that question is totally silly.

  5. Let’s see… Government telling consumers what they can or cannot buy, forcing them to buy what they otherwise would not or the free choice of free people to choose according to their own wishes and corporations making money by providing people with things they are willing to buy. Top-down, elitist, command-control vs. Freedom and making money. I vote freedom and making money.

  6. Well they got the bit about benefiting corporations correct, but that happens every time government tries to change people’s habits against their will. No matter what our environmental choices are it is not for the ruling and celebrity classes to decide but for the people to decide and the market to react. Another piece of academic conceit.

  7. “…poverty the result of inadequate governmental regulations or does the burden fall on our failure as consumers to make better consumption choices”

    How about that poverty is not the result of human activity but the natural state of human affairs that capitalism has mostly lifted us from? Seriously – how can one look at human history and conclude that poverty is the result of government inaction? Ignorant beyond belief!

  8. The whole premise is that we have a governmental organization which can accurately identify “problems” while ignoring the obvious incentives that bureaucrats and governments have to find new problems to fix.

  9. Of course. This is like the little signs in hotels and other business establishments encouraging patrons to “save the planet” by using less water, less toilet tissue, few towels, etc.

    Those savings have nothing to do with the planet and everything to do with corporate profit.

    Corporations in almost every sector are finding ways to profit from the AGW fairy tale.This is what maintains the scam.

  10. Goodness, some of you guys from over the pond are learning fast from the faceless ones in Brussels.

  11. I pointed out to some friends who were supportive of the Occupy movement, that the group of people most likely to gain from policy introduced to fight climate change, would be the bankers running carbon credit schemes. I was worried for a while that their heads might explode.

  12. Bloke down the pub August 26, 2014 at 8:26 am

    No kidding.

    From a textSocial Market Foundation press release in January 2008:

    An essay by Simon Linnett, Executive Vice Chairman of Rothschild.

    The essay asserts that carbon trading will be one of the most effective methods to combat climate change, since it allows the private sector to play a major role.

    The author argues that a global authority will be required to regulate carbon trading schemes, and that national governments must necessarily cede some of their sovereignty to this body.

    Finally, Mr Linnett suggests that as a global financial centre, London would be the natural choice to house a newly constituted World Environment Agency.

  13. Finally, consumers must adopt this new ethical self-understanding.

    Why must they?
    Isn’t the cause and effect the other way round.

    Consumers adopt this new ethical self-understanding (influenced by the media and Governments).
    And then corporations move to exploit the market.

    Then they may be self-perpetuating. But initially, surely, the push for a new ethical self-understanding is due to the consumers themselves.

    I speculate that secularisation has led to a dearth of meaning especially with respect to virtue. This, I propose, is the root of the new ethical self-understanding.

  14. No green energy source is sustainable since fossils fuel is used to manufacture it, replace it, and maintain it. Renewable and sustainability are green buzz words that signify nothing.
    This alone makes this article not worth the effort to read.
    I refuse to quit using what made our society strong even if it was proven that it caused warming. What we do best is adapt on a daily basis. Anything that hinders that is anti human, and should be opposed.

  15. Has this experiment not already been tried out in the US – Prohibition? Banning the sale and public consumption of alcohol on the grounds that the public was not capable of drinking responsibly.
    Did the results justify repeating the experiment with other commodities ?

  16. Energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances and cars do benefit the consumer, by reducing the consumer’s energy expenses. The extra cost of more efficient items usually pays for itself within the lifetime of the item, and usually within a few years. Replacing an incandescent lamp with a CFL often has the CFL paying for itself in less than a year. It’s a shame that many consumers think more short-term than that, and many landlords provide the cheapest, least efficient lights and appliances they can.

  17. Hey, folks! It’s the University of Chicago. In their ivory towers they can’t see the disasters that over-regulation and social control have caused all around them.

  18. I’m currently driving down the the west coast of the US. I noted the number of “Adopt a Highway” signs: indications that this particular stretch is cleaned of garbage by the Women’s Institute of Blodgett or some-such place. While a worthwhile, morally and PC correct statement of community involvement and ownership, it struck me somewhat as a product this article speaks to: the transfer of social, i.e. organized government, responsibility to the individual. The State literally pays for the highways, but then walks away. If it is a mess, it is because individuals in the area leave it a mess.

    The general society – the litterers – and the government, who taxes you, are not responsible. What looks like a good thing, a morally superior thing, is a transfer of cost and organization to the free side of the charge sheet.

    I don’t like big government. Yet cleaning the nations’ highways is a large scale task. One would think that a large-scale solution, for example, having convicted criminals in pink suits pick up trash as part of their “payback” to society – would be a useful endeavor.

    But, wait – that would cause someone to have a lowered self-esteem.

    We really need to focus on who pays truly and who does truly. When a DiCaprio flys all over the world and a Gore has multiple houses, we can see that the elite bear more responsibility than the rest of us for whatever damage they do to society and the planet. There should be, in this case, a rich-tax for the affluent effluent. The market can make better choices, for sure, but if the rich think buying a Hummer to drive around the city is a wise and green choice – their Company makes them – then they should be looked at for the hypocrites they are. Not the smart, wise and successful con men they are.

    We are conned not by the rich or big business, but by the unthinking liberal eco-green urban philosopher who talk shows hold out as the morally superior. It is up to You, not Me.

    Ponder on this inconvenient truth, Leonard and All.

  19. When businesses or other special interest groups lobby for laws or regulations that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else, it is called “rent seeking.”

    Rent seeking is a natural by-product of having government involved in virtually every aspect of our lives. The solution is to reduce the scope and power of government.

  20. 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).

    No, first they make up the problem and it’s supposed affects. CAGW from 1 oC.

    Question. Would the World Economic Forum have more or less of the economic elites as part of the Billionaires Club controlling the environmental movement and EPA?

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/07/30/breaking-senate-report-exposes-the-climate-environmental-movement-as-being-a-cash-machine-controlling-the-epa/

  21. The same smelly fish wrapped up in today’s newspaper. Consumers consume based upon their NEEDS and if possible (in a wealthy society) their WANTS. The only way to micromanage their consumption is through a USSR style of dictatorship (benevolently called socialism).

    Consumers are not trying to enrich one corporation over another. They are merely fulfilling their needs and wants. The idiots that think they have to be manipulated in order to remove the benefit to one company over another, or to somehow magically eradicate sloth and greed (commonly called welfare) are trying to get the camel’s nose in the door – so that when they can then prove (ala a Mannian Hokey Stick) that consumption is “wrong” they can then go to the demand side of government control – in other words force shortages and overages.

    This article fits well with the Climate theme. These “scientists” are doing science the same way the “team” is. Which is not science at all.

  22. Donald L. Klipstein says: ” Replacing an incandescent lamp with a CFL often has the CFL paying for itself in less than a year.”
    Really? I should substitute a $15 CFL weighing 5oz, shipped halfway around the world in an elaborate plastic blister pack, encased in color printed cardboard outer packaging touting all the money I will save over the next 10 years for a North American made $1.25 incandescent made from half a teaspoon of sand and a few grams of metal whose excess heat lowers my gas bill during half the year saves money?
    After 3 years the eerie CFL output is so dim, I can not see to find the receipt to collect on the “warranty”..
    In theory the $15 LED has more promise. We shall see….or not.

  23. The authors’ conclusions can only be supported if they assume that governments can command innovation and invention on demand, something that has never been the case. Next comes the allocation of winners and losers in the economic sphere — another loser perpetuated by a socialist dominated education system.

    These people need to be forced to spend a year in a worker’s paradise like Venezuela or North Korea.

  24. ““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.”

    It appears to be some sort of system in which only green companies are given licenses. I believe that is the meaning of the phrase, “business earns the license.” A potential application of this would be the refusal of license to any supermarket that sells food or products from further than 250 miles away.

    Allowing governments and NGOs to impose these restrictions on companies means that no one here would ever be the customer again. The environmentalists and their chosen beneficiaries of the policy would be the only customer.

  25. The authors seem to be of a self-delusion or ignorance that is rarely seen outside warmist circles. The EU BANNED incandescent bulbs, first high Wattage then ever smaller and FORCED people to buy mercury bulbs. The pretense was the Global Warming apocalypse, the REASON lobbying by Philips, GE et al.

    If any of the authors reads this, this process is as old as government regulations and is called “raising the barriers to entry” because it removes the cheap competition – the patent for the incandescent bulb has expired and the big companies DON’T WANT TO COMPETE against small shops that just make light bulbs.

    And the authors don’t know this? Are they Keynesians? Are they under megadoses of Xanax?

  26. Oh, another REASON, not a pretense, for the EU’s action was of course the desire to reduce electricity consumption, an understandable strategic reason as the EU doesn’t have huge energy resources, fears nuclear power for the sabotage risk (NOT the accident risk), and wanted to reduce its dependance on foreign powers. This is BTW also the reason for the frantic speed with which Germany is covered with wind turbines and solar panels, and biofuel plantations. Strategic reason; just like the pipeline wars.

  27. Donald L. Klipstein August 26, 2014 at 9:43 am
    Energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances and cars do benefit the consumer, by reducing the consumer’s energy expenses. The extra cost of more efficient items usually pays for itself within the lifetime of the item, and usually within a few years. Replacing an incandescent lamp with a CFL often has the CFL paying for itself in less than a year. It’s a shame that many consumers think more short-term than that, and many landlords provide the cheapest, least efficient lights and appliances they can.

    How do you know what’s short-term vs. how much I can afford right now? Must be nice to have enough money to not worry about how much you can spend upfront. Not everyone has that luxury.

    If I put a CFL in a closet that I rarely access, how many years is the ROI going to take? And how much time will I waste waiting for the CFL to get bright enough to see by? What sense does it make to put a CFL in a location where it is rarely used and may only be on for a minute or less when I do use it?

    CFLs quite frankly, are junk. I wouldn’t buy one if I had better choices available. They lose their brightness with use and usually must be discarded long before their claimed useful life. Thankfully, LEDs are becoming more affordable.

  28. ““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…”

    Why do you think the “markets” would be “new”? The “markets” would be “new” because no one has ever wanted the stuff. No one would make these purchases voluntarily.

    For example, organic-local-only soy products replacing beef, or organic soy products replacing coffee might be determined to be best and greenest for the planet. If government officials and nonprofits determine this is the only licensed choice for a supermarket, I guess the customer will make the sustainable, responsible choice. Wouldn’t he. That is, as long as he has no other choice.

    It is still forced and coerced purchases and has nothing at all to do with any real market. And for there to be a market, there must be smaller competitors, and the ability of any one in this country to engage in commercial activity, using his own resources and property to attain a profit. This was shown in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where the smaller, family loan business was able to provide a choice of lenders and terms to the town, resulting in homeownership – where Mr. Potter preferred renters in his appartments. In this Green mercantilism, there would be no choice except between green and greener, and between friends of the government and friends of the government.

    The ability to grow beef and dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and grains – using our current techniques which maximize yield and reduce loss – is the the most important commercial activity any American can engage in. Shipping the products to willing buyers across the country or around the world are also not criminal behaviors to be regulated and denied by governments and non-profits in this way. We institute governments to protect these activities.

  29. “economic elites promote the idea that the only viable solution is for consumers to change their behaviour”

    This part of their process is fantasy. In the free world consumers aren’t in the habit of listening to economic elites – whoever they happen to be. Consumers tend to make consumption choices based on cost not social good. Government regulation can make a difference long term but only if consumers accept the social good. Otherwise there is a change in Government and regulations.

  30. These people, unfortunately, are conflating how a monetary system works operationally within an economy with the creation of government policy. The former is accounting, albeit complicated for most. The latter is politics, or, perhaps social engineering (eg: cigarette tax). I say ‘unfortunately’ because the authors are basically saying the “responsible consumption myth” is bogus, which I agree with, but they are not using the right foundation to make their points.

    Consumption measures the level of spending on goods and services by the government (public) and the private sector. Consumption is an accounting term that has a specific meaning, just like ‘output’ (what we all produce) and ‘aggregate spending’ (sales). Or ‘demand leakage’ (savings).

    The authors are confusing consumption with consumer spending, which they prove above by listing four types of consumers for their analysis and theory.

    The authors should be slamming the responsible consumption myth by saying that the notion that “business earns the license to create new markets” after encouraging politicians to make “policy changes” for “responsible consumption” is not how it works operationally, and besides it’s an illogical circular argument. It’s the cart before the horse. In the USA, 70% of all spending is done by households. [Businesses spend about 11-14%, the government about 12-16%, and the foreign sector around 3-6%.]

    If households don’t have income, they can’t spend. No businessman in his right mind creates a new market or spends a penny on plant and equipment if his customers don’t have incomes, don’t have jobs. He won’t have any sales. That’s why businesses are sitting on $2 trillion in cash right now. Not enough jobs to create the income to induce the spending that will produce the sales.

    No social engineering required. There are not enough jobs. And in our fiat currency economy, the only entity that can kickstart new jobs in a downturn by acting “counter-cyclically” is the US federal government. The federal government needs to spend $3.9 trillion to fix our D-Grade infrastructure and Obama and Congress haven’t done it. By law, and it’s right there in the constitution, only Congress can authorize spending.

    If the people–the people–want global warming policies, a political decision, then under our system they can tell their congressmen. The warministas are trying to get us to believe that these future babble political decisions are on the same level as getting clean air and water and untainted food, all necessary for survival which the government does a better job regulating.

    [Please don't come back at me with some b.s. argument that Congress needs taxes before it can spend, or that China is making dollars bills in some basement for us. Where do you think those US dollars come from in the first place? And don't tell me it's the Fed. Look at one. It's signed by the US Treasurer and Secretary of the Treasury, not the Fed Chairman. Once the Republican Mormon banker from Salt Lake City Marriner Eccles moved to DC to explain to FDR in 1933 how fiat currency worked in an advanced society, FDR ditched the gold standard (domestically) and used the new currency to put people to work building the interstate system, the Boulder Dam, the National Parks, the prezzies on the mountains in one of the Dakotas. Etcetera. Believe me, with 25+% unemployment there were no tax dollars back then to pay for any of it. Didn't need them. And the country got out of its slump, with the blip in 1937-38 when the Republicans forced a balanced budget and reduced spending, and the unemployment rate soared back up to 20%. It took the war and the full employment that it created to get us rolling and create the middle class. BTW, FDR made Marriner Eccles the first Fed Chairman in 1935; the man was a financial genius, unlike our last three.]

  31. More social engineering. Real engineers use the physics and chemistry of real scientists to develop objects that people really want and need. Social engineers use the “science” created by social “scientists” to create utopian plans for society that politicians can impose on a docile populace.

  32. mikewaite August 26, 2014 at 9:23 am
    Has this experiment not already been tried out in the US – Prohibition? Banning the sale and public consumption of alcohol on the grounds that the public was not capable of drinking responsibly.

    Yes but we will try anything five or six times.

  33. Donald L. Klipstein

    Says:

    Energy-efficient light bulbs, appliances and cars do benefit the consumer, by reducing the consumer’s energy expenses. The extra cost of more efficient items usually pays for itself within the lifetime of the item, and usually within a few years. Replacing an incandescent lamp with a CFL often has the CFL paying for itself in less than a year. It’s a shame that many consumers think more short-term than that, and many landlords provide the cheapest, least efficient lights and appliances they can.

    You statement about these products save money is energy, so much adult male bovine fetal mater, CFL would pay for themselves if they would fail so often, give inadequate light so to get the same light out of them you need two instead of one tungsten lamp. As far as energy saving appliance same thing it used to be if you bought a major appliance they would last over twenty years, now your lucky to get ten out of a refrigerator, The refrigerator in my child hood home lasted over forty, Efficiency is not only the energy it consumes it also the energy it takes to produce the item,

    Don’t get me on air condition and heating I have purchased one boiler, which did save me money. Air conditioning, well twenty years ago you could buy a central unit air condition it cost less than $1000.00 and would run for twenty to thirty years without any problems, I have replace one today it 5000 plus and I have two of those units in the last seven years with supposed more efficient and both cost more to run and both have required far more service. Explain to me how a more efficient unit consumes 10 to 15 % more electricity a year to do the same job. They are less reliable and in some cases more dangerous, Yea it a great idea to replace a nonflammable coolant with one that is flammable. That what they have done all in the name of saving the environment. Some savings, they consume more energy, cost more and last have as long, any way I pencil it out that more costly to the environment and definitely to my pocket book.

    As to auto are marvelous devices compared to the ones produced forty years ago, comparing today cars with a car I purchased in 1984, It was a 1984 Chevrolet Nova would do 34 miles to a gallon, if you don’t know it was just a repackaged Toyota Corolla, I do not think that a 2014 Toyota Corolla is not doing much better today even though the new one is fuel injected and the old one had a conventional carburetor. My wife’s 1989 Buick Century had the same fuel economy as her 2001. they both typical would do 30 mile per gallon according to you the new one should have done better, well it did not.

    So to recap the so called energy efficient appliances that we are being sold today are not more energy efficient if you look at the replacement rates and there actual efficiency, most of their so called savings are only in some computer model not that actual use, they do not last as long, they cost more (which is not do to inflation, it the more expensive material being put in them) and they require far more maintenance, so for those that live in the real world you fantasy land is working so well. It ending up the we and the environment are poorer due to stupid people forcing us to by inferior products, which neither saves money or the environment.

    • One word about the cars: They’ve gotten heavier due to side crash protection and more components like air bags and better stiffening of the passenger cell. And they’ve gotten LOTS safer in the process. And it shows in the road death statistics worldwide; all without increasing fuel consumption. A very worthwhile change in my opinion.

  34. I find the mindset in the above alarming. If even half the people who claim to believe their actions are causing the destruction of earth acted on this, we would be able to make a bigger impact then the IPCC is attempting to justify.

  35. It’s appalling the lack of understanding of economics that this paper puts on stage. These (thought to be evil) corporate players don’t sit there with a bunch of things no one wants in order to foist it on them. If the public “wants” windmills, the corporations will provide them, promote them to amortize their plant and rightly and honorably profit from it. If the government wants to give away money for some industrial policy or another, why chastise a corporation from profiting from it. Indeed, the good corporation has an obligation to do so.

    I see this is the peak oil ‘concerns’. Oh dear what are we going to do? The beauty of it all, my concerned scientist or sociologist, is that you don’t have to do a thing. Just keep demanding energy and it will be provided automatically by the very skilled problem solvers of the corporate world – naturally they want to be paid for it and they are worth every penny.

    I see this with those that agonize over pop_ula-tion growth – how will we feed them, how can we sustain them. Two things, make the world prosperous and they will reduce their fertility and improve the well being of everyone. Relax, it’s automatic. Like negative feedbacks to global warming. Two thirds of the temperature rise has been created by BOM of Australia, CRU-MetOffice and GISS bending curves upwards. Imagine if they had stopped in 1990, the curves would have all be bending down into the coolness before now. Meat heads, meat heads from York University.

  36. “global community of morally enlightened consumers ”

    =

    Freedom of choice? Let the believers put their money where their mouth is. I’ll make my decisions based on the merits of the issue involved.

  37. I’m just flabbergasted by their shear arrogance, “..requires a global community of morally enlightened consumers …”

    Without skipping a beat they automatically position themselves as the ones to define morality.

    Jim Jones required a community of “enlightened” kool aid drinkers. I don’t see much difference between Jim Jones and this pompous bunch of elitists. As Rush says, it’s all about them being in CONTROL.

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