Individual behaviour change is an important factor in tackling the environmental threats the world faces, but it simply isn’t enough.
Individual behaviour change is an important factor in tackling the environmental threats the world faces, but it simply isn’t enough. The primary problems are structural; our economy, our energy system, our transport infrastructure, our land management. It is not honest to say that behaviour change could make a significant contribution to tackling environmental threats if structural change does not take place. It is an attractive message for those who wish to resist change and blame us. This does not mean that our lifestyle doesn’t need to change; it do. We must be clear in our heads that continuing as we are but with more renewable energy is no solution – the challenge we face is far greater than that. But changes to personal behaviour will largely come as a result of structural change rather than because ‘consumers make different market choices’. Consumer choice is vital for a free society, but it should be from a large set of sustainable options, rather than the limited choices constraining us today.
Our behaviours are driven by fundamental human needs and desires – the need to be fed and clothed and sheltered, the need to form community and find our place in it, the desire to share and be kind, to be respected, to feel successful and attractive. These are fundamental to humankind and will not change. What will change is how we meet these needs and desires. We can meet our need for nourishment without highly-processed and addictive foods, our need for clothing (and our sense of style) without throwaway ‘fast fashion’, our need for shelter without house price inflation. We can meet our needs for community and respect without that respect being based on how many products we own, kindness can be expressed by what we do for others, not what we buy for others. Attractiveness does not need to result from conspicuous consumption and our sense of success need not be based on the short-lived ‘rush’ of shopping.
It used to be different; social status (how people perceive themselves and others in their communities) did not always revolve around consumption and ownership. We used to value and respect people for their skills and contributions – the status of a farmer did not come from owning a tractor, the status of a doctor was not related to her car, the person we knew we could turn to for advice was not respected because of a big television. This shift was not accidental; at the beginning of the 20th century, when technology meant that humankind could manufacture much, much more that was
needed to live comfortable lives, industries asked how they could get people to buy these new products. The solution was to make people feel self-conscious if they didn’t own them, to make them believe that they should feel shame for not possessing items even though they had no real need for them, and to persuade people that it really was consumption that conferred social status. This is what led to advertising and marketing as we know them and over the last 100 years uncountable amounts have been spent trying to persuade us that we’ll be more sexually attractive if we buy the car, more loved by our children if we buy them the elaborate toys, more respected by our neighbours if we replace our sofa regularly.
We need to take steps to rebuild our sense of ourselves and to change how we confer social status. This doesn’t mean we have to live without modern comforts or new technologies, but it means that we should stop telling ourselves they’re anything more than a sofa, a TV, a car. We can rebuild community and place more value on contribution – what people do, not what they own. We must be given the confidence to reject much more. We need to be able to enjoy a child’s birthday party without thinking the other parents are judging the value of the presents, or simply to say ‘you know what, I don’t need a new sofa’. The best way to do this is structural – everything in the Resources chapter above will help us to rebalance the prices of things and the way we use them. ‘Share shops’ where you can pop in and borrow a drill or a sewing machine for the day make us all equal in what we can do, and when reusable and repairable technology becomes the norm we don’t need to be ashamed of an ‘old’ phone.
Again, it is important to be clear that this is not about sacrifice or reducing our quality of life – we’ll still spend our money on things that make us happy, but what those things are will change. We will shift how we spend towards participation (like sports or drama or music or gardening), socialising (being together with people in ways that do not become a ‘spending competition’) and relaxing (rather than fighting our way round busy, stressful shopping malls we will spend our income on activities that ‘regenerate’ us). When a sign of success is not coming home on a Saturday laden down with shopping bags but with the rosy glow of calm, relaxed happiness, the tyranny of ‘stuff’ will decline.
And then we must tackle the problem of advertising. There are some forms of advertising that should simply be banned immediately - children should never be targeted by advertising, there should be little advertising of food, and advertising for gambling and other addictive goods and practices should never have been allowed in the first place. Then we should crack down on ‘lifestyle advertising’ – an advert can’t suggest that alcohol makes you more attractive, so why should any other product? Advertising is supposed to be fair and honest, so why is it allowed to suggest that somehow buying a coffee machine makes you ‘a bit like a Hollywood star’.
We could be even more radical than this; perhaps we should simply require that adverts do no more than picture the project, explain its use and its specification and then allow a ‘customer rating’ service to guide consumers. We should also simply ban many ‘lifestyle marketing’ practices such as product placement and ‘brand ambassadors’ – how is that ‘fair and honest’? This doesn’t mean good, stylish design won’t be a central part of our economy, but it will be about making products better, not making us feel worse about ourselves. Scotland’s economy needs informed consumers, making rational choices about what to buy.
This doesn’t mean we won’t want things – of course we will – but they will be of higher quality, built to work and built to last. Our economy makes products which only last a fraction of the time they really should because that means you’ll be back to the same shop buying the same thing again from the same corporation. The Common Home Plan will, in itself, drive up the quality of products and the incentives on producers to make better products that last longer and use materials which are much more local. But we should also set up a National Consumer Agency. There is no reason it could not rate and regulate every product sold to make sure that it is of an acceptable quality – like an MOT on our economy.
And then we must finally give up on growth as virtually the only goal of economic policy. That there is more ‘stuff’ in the economy than there was last year doesn’t tell us anything other than that we have more plastic waste to deal with. Our measures of success (particularly Gross Value Added) are about quantity not quality and we need to reverse that. We need an entirely new set of metrics – average incomes, the ability of consumers to buy high-quality goods and services at an affordable price, the sustainability of industry and agriculture so subsequent generations are not forced into crippling debt in order to pay off externality costs, the resilience of businesses in the face of external shocks and global economic downturns. Government must take the lead – if it keeps sending out the message that the only version of better is ‘more’, then it has no place telling Us that we need to change.