The costs of consumerism

At the Portland State University International Conference on Business and Sustainability last week where I was speaking on Social Purchasing, two presentations crystallized an ongoing question I have had about consumer power, “green” business and sustainability in a consumer society in general.

Bill Wertz, Divisional Director of Community & Media Relations from Walmart spoke – quite openly – about their sustainability initiatives and challenges. Despite many progressives’ feelings about Walmart, their push for environmental labeling and standards is pushing the entire consumer packaged goods industry faster than any lobbyist could. Answering a question from the audience, he said that from Walmart’s experience, the biggest barrier to green purchasing is cost. Consumers are not yet willing to pay a premium for sustainable products – even if, as with CFLs, they will save money in the longer term.

In a following session, Libby Evans from Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, was talking about their efforts to create sustainable livelihood for coffee growers around the world. As part of that effort, they invest in technical and marketing training on the ground, encouraging farmers to grow to “standards” and command a premium price for organic or Fair Trade certification. In one case, this resulted in farmers increasing their payment from $1.10 per pound before to $1.74 after

These two approaches raise an interesting question: if producers in the developing world are hoping to maintain a sustainable livelihood through premium prices, and if consumers are not willing to pay those prices in the long run, what result will this have? What responsibility to consumers have to ensure their purchases are resulting in beneficial results? How do we raise awareness of the consequences of our relentless quest for cheap? How should we distribute the costs of providing sustainable livelihoods to those living at the bottom of the pyramid?

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