To save the planet, we must kill off ‘the consumer’

If businesses are serious about embracing climate action, they need to start viewing individuals as rounded ‘citizens’, not just ‘consumers’, says Andrea Hartley, founder and CEO of Skating Panda

Gil Ribeiro Ae7f98txmg0 Unsplash

I am more than just a ‘consumer’, and so are you. Or rather, we could be. 

But as far as the business world is concerned, we may as well be walking wallets. Those who spend and shop with any given business are still routinely defined in terms of their consumption of products and services; just think how many times you’ve encountered the phrases ‘customer expectations’, ‘known spending patterns’ or ‘what the consumer wants’ in annual reports and CEO interviews. Whole corporate strategies are frequently built around the idea of ‘the consumer’, as if we were all a single being. 

It’s the kind of thinking that’s all too easy to go along with, too. In our haste to buy and sell more products, we’re creating more and more waste, and not using the things we already have efficiently. We are, then, consuming – and doing so recklessly. 

The UK, for instance, produces the most food waste in Europe, throwing away 9.5 million tonnes a year, even though 8.4 million people in the UK are in food poverty. And in the clothing industry, demand for raw materials is expected to triple by 2050, but an estimated £140m worth of clothes are sent to landfill in the UK each year. 

This clearly needs to change, for the sake of the planet and society. 

Can we redesign consumption?

One way to achieve that is to collectively turn our backs on the idea of ‘the consumer’, and to instead think of individuals as ‘citizens’ – that is to say, inhabitants of planet Earth, economic actors and integral stakeholders in society. 

This mindset shift, which both business and individuals need to adopt, could change the game on existing sustainability efforts. Some particularly forward-thinking businesses are already waking up to the need to acknowledge and embrace the role of individuals in instigating climate action through collective action and active engagement. As former advertising executive-turned-author Jon Alexander writes in his book Citizens, “the key to fixing everything is all of us”.

We must collectively turn our backs on the idea of ‘the consumer’, and instead think of individuals as ‘citizens’

For one thing, if the business community learnt to see individuals as protectors of the planet and society, we’d all be in a position to think more responsibly about what gets produced, and how we then consume it. That would put the onus on businesses to help citizens out, by moving away from the take-make-waste model and encouraging a shift to the circular economy. Working with citizens to achieve quantifiable progress, at speed, would be key.

It’s all about greater co-operation between business and individuals, then. By embracing a participatory approach which encourages citizens to get involved in decision-making, businesses can gain new insights and ideas about sustainability which will resonate more deeply with their target audience. After all, we are now all more environmentally aware than ever before, and as citizens it’s becoming easier and easier for us to align our spending choices with responsible principles.

Climate change is a long-term global challenge for everyone, everywhere. It requires systemic change and urgent, sustained efforts. Businesses can start by treating their customers as citizens and in parallel investing in long-term sustainability initiatives for the benefit of people, planet and profits too.

Here are five steps businesses can take to start moving away from the idea of ‘consumers’, in favour of thinking more about ‘citizens’: 

Engage with a range of stakeholders

Any stakeholder engagement initiative should include customers, employees and communities, and should involve encouraging meaningful feedback, so that businesses can come to understand citizens’ concerns and expectations regarding the business.

Educate employees

Teaching staff about the importance of sustainability and responsible business practices is vital. This should be done in a way that encourages and gives them permission to think of themselves as citizens and active members of the community, not just parts of a corporate machine.

Give customers the facts

Providing clear information about how products or services affect the world – whether for better or worse – is an important part of businesses taking a responsible attitude towards citizens and the planet.

Communicate the change

Engage with key stakeholders to explain how this mindset shift will change the business’s short-term profitability. It will also be worth painting a clear picture of medium and long-term gain.

Enjoy the ride

Business leaders need to understand that sustainability is an ongoing journey for everyone, including citizens, and will require adjustments to their business strategies over time.

Implementing these pointers will help you as a leader to deliver a responsible and focused approach to sustainability, moving beyond seeing individuals as consumers, and reframing them as citizens and allies in the struggle against the climate emergency. Doing so will not only demonstrate a commitment to building a sustainable future for people and planet, but this shift should also contribute to long-term business success. Surely that’s got to be worth the effort.

Andrea Hartley is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of social impact consultancy Skating Panda.