People buying products and services (consumers) represent 60% of the global economy.
Adam Smith was the first to single out consumers back in 1776 when in The Wealth of Nations he said “consumers act in their own self interest and markets work with the invisible hand.” He also said “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” That was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Soon it became clear that not all was well with the Industrial Revolution. The Labor Movement started right after the Industrial Revolution. But the consumer perspective took a bit longer. Three women activists started the Consumer Movement version 1.0 when they formed the National Consumers League in 1881.
This initial version of the Consumer Movement was lead by activists who typically fought for working conditions in parallel to the labor movement. Much was achieved by this first version.
Version 2.0 of the Consumer Movement started in 1930 during the Great Depression. This second version was characterized by the involvement of governments to pass legislation to protect consumers and some of their causes. Highlights of this second version are FDR’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, the Consumer Bill of Rights passed by John Kennedy in 1962 and more recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau championed by Elizabeth Warren.
Consumer activists continued to have an impact and play a role in parallel with the government based consumer perspective. And consumer/product perspective such as organizations Consumer’s Research, founded in 1928, also became prominent. And the Consumer Union, better known as Consumer Reports was formed in 1936.
The Consumer Bill of Rights is very significant as a prelude to version 3.0 of the Consumer Movement.
The four consumer rights it established were;
1. The right to safety
2. The right to be informed
3. The right to choose
4. The right to be heard
Eventually the Consumer Bill of Rights was expanded to 8 rights by the United Nations passing of the Guidelines for Consumer Protection
Version 2.0 of the Consumer Movement was (and is) structured as the collaboration between activist organizations and government.
These consumer rights were adopted by the consumer activist organization Consumers International formed in 1960.
From a different perspective, this version 2.0 of the Consumer Movement coexisted with the advent of “consumerism“. The role of advertising in promoting consumption became a science as thoroughly explained in the BBC documentary The Century of the Self;
The documentary describes the impact of Freud’s theories on the perception of the human mind, and the ways public relations agencies and politicians have used this during the last 100 years for their engineering of consent. Among the main characters are Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in advertising.
Also in parallel to this second version of the Consumer Movement we see the rise of the Environmental Movement. Its most significant starting point was the publication by Rachel Carson of the extremely influential Silent Spring in 1962.
The environmental movement has raised the awareness of people (consumers) about their impact on the planet. This awareness has become paramount today with the issue of anthropogenic climate change. People are becoming conscious that unless the CO2 emissions of what they consume are drastically curtailed, the world as they know it may come to an end in one or two generations. The concept of sustainability has become part of the mindset of people around the world. According to many studies, when people purchase products up to 95% of them care about the environmental and social footprint of their products and as many as 55% of them globally would pay more for a more sustainable product.
The idea of a sustainable economy is buttressed by the concept of a circular economy complemented by the theory of a Cradle to Cradle complete product lifecycle. From a corporate perspective one must add the triple bottom line, people, planet and profit.
In the last 20 years the Internet has changed the world. In particular, anyone doing research is empowered by the vast amounts of information available through such starting points as Google and Wikipedia. An increasing number of Internet companies of all sorts provide information focused on a myriad of issues. To all this add the ubiquity of the Internet through smart phones. The Internet is part of people’s life around the world with over 3 billion users worldwide.
All of this brings us to the Consumer Movement version 3.0
Version 3.0 will be lead by the individual consumers when they make purchasing decisions based on the environmental and social footprint of products by having easy access to the vast amount of sustainability information that can be connected to the all products and services they buy.
The required ingredients are easily available information (research is fine but time consuming), trustworthy information through 100% transparency and consumer feedback to the sources of information, manufacturers, retailers, government and activist organizations. After all, the right to be informed was established by John Kennedy’s Consumer Bill of Rights and endorsed by the United Nations, and let’s not forget the right to be heard, also a basic consumer right.
When this consumer lead dynamic of voting for sustainability with their wallets reaches critical mass, green manufacturers and retailers will be further motivated to strengthen their commitment to achieve a sustainable economy.
As Adam Smith proposed consumers will act in their own self interest and their interest is now to leave a viable economy to their progeny. We at Earth Accounting want to enhance the “invisible hand” of the markets that he also talked about by making it possible through our unique strategy to collect and deliver the product sustainability information consumers want.