Merchants of Doubt - The Conscious Consumer Movement

Merchants of Doubt & The Conscious Consumer Movement

Many have come to the consensus that the fastest way to a circular economy is to support ethical and sustainable business as consumers. When consumers support socially and environmentally sustainable products and companies, the market will naturally shift to meet demand. We have accepted that government is not representing the people effectively and has failed to sufficiently regulate the environmental impacts of corporations. As a result, a leading strategy to reach sustainability is to make better decisions as consumers.

As we embark on this journey toward sustainability, it’s important for us to look to the past so we can understand how we got to where we are now and the best way to proceed. The book “Merchants of Doubt” published in 2010, gives us incredible insight into why government has failed to represent the people and implement the necessary regulations to protect our environment. In doing so, it evokes some important questions we need to ask ourselves – as individuals and as a society – so that we can navigate the inevitable roadblocks on the path to sustainability.

A brief review of environmental-political history from “Merchants of Doubt”

In “Merchants of Doubt – How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway give readers a valuable history lesson, explaining why – with all of the scientific evidence there is supporting anthropogenic environmental impact – government has continued to fail in implementing the necessary environmental regulations. The main point: Science around global warming, ozone depletion, pesticides such as DDT, and other critical environmental issues has been obscured by a handful of scientists which has instilled enough doubt in the public and political figures to prevent reasonable action.

As a result of their 5 years of research, Oreskes and Conway connect the dots for us in what would otherwise be a hidden relationship between science, politics, and industry. The authors’ research reveals a handful of scientists whose careers were undoubtedly influenced by their work with nuclear weaponry in a post WWII Cold War era where capitalism and the free market was triumphed and communism feared and despised. Great scientists as they were, these men rose to high positions within the scientific community (United States National Academy of Sciences, Presidential Science Advisory Committee, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, etc.) and maintained their strong beliefs in free market. They believed that technology and the free market would solve environmental issues and that government regulation (and environmentalism) was a slippery slope to socialist and communist government. As champions of free market, these scientific leaders continued their careers in a much more political fashion than most scientists, becoming “merchants of doubt”. They partnered with industries such as tobacco and oil to battle the conclusions of the scientific community, because the consensus of the scientific community supported government regulation in order to protect society from the likes of second hand smoke, pesticides like DDT, and the harmful effects of pollution.

With the financial and strategic support of tobacco and oil industry leaders, these merchants of doubt were able to utilize mass media and political influence to spread doubt about information that was already recognized as fact among the scientific community. Their primary tactics included funding their own studies, creating their own organizations for use as a platform to provide the “other side of the story” and attempting to publicly discredit the work of scientists.

The classic example found in the history of tobacco regulation helps us understand the unbelievable success this group has had in undermining scientific research and spreading doubt. Countless peer reviewed studies dating back to the 1950’s have cemented the connection between smoking and cancer, yet despite this hard evidence, polls show there is still doubt amongst the public, and regulation on tobacco has lagged behind the evidence at an unbelievably slow rate.

“By the 1990s, most Americans knew that smoking was generally harmful, but as many as 30 percent could not tie that harm to specific disease. Even many doctors do not know the full extent of tobacco harms, and nearly a quarter of poll respondents still doubt that smoking is harmful at all.”

The tobacco industry has finally been found guilty of concealing the harmful effects of tobacco use, but it has been over 50 years and countless deaths since the harmful effects of tobacco use were discovered.

“…the tobacco industry knew the dangers of smoking as early as 1953 and conspired to suppress this knowledge. They conspired to fight the facts, and to merchandise doubt.”

These doubt provoking tactics initially developed by the tobacco industry proved to be very effective in persuading public and political views. They were thereafter adopted by other industries to battle scientific consensus and support the political agendas of few, despite the overwhelming evidence and recommendations from the scientific community. Irrefutable evidence around environmental concerns including acid rain, ozone depletion, pesticides, and global warming have compiled in the scientific community, but Oreskes and Conway clearly show that time and time again, merchants of doubt have been successful in mongering doubt and stalling progress.

A Changing Tide – The New Way of Voting

A considerable (and well established) downfall of capitalism is the tragedy of the commons. Corporations are able to increase their profits at the expensive of the environment, while the public is left to deal with the consequences of their externalities. Many would agree now, that stronger government regulation around pollution and environmental degradation in general would have put us in a more advantageous position than we are in today. Regulations on externalities such as CO2 emissions would have fostered solutions to some of the most pressing environmental issues we now face. Instead we are behind the ball, still reliant on fossil fuels and left to adapt to a changing environment.

Time and time again we see a failure of our government system to meet the needs of the people; instead catering to the few that hold the most wealth, continually creating legislation in favor of corporations.

We may now be at a turning point, however. There is a rising movement that is giving a voice back to the people. While we increasingly lose faith in the power of the conventional vote, consumers are beginning to realize the power of their purchasing decisions by supporting environmentally and socially responsible corporations. Among other things, the evidence presented in “Merchants of Doubt” confirms that money is power and it’s no surprise that everyday citizens are starting to use this same driving force to influence change.

Technology is a key element to the movement, aiding everyday citizens in their quest to vote with their wallets. The prevalence of mobile devices and internet connectivity now allows the average citizen to access a wealth of information anywhere they go. Several applications and websites offer information about the ethics and policies of corporations (some even do so on an individual product level) helping consumers make educated purchasing decisions.

Is The Conscious Consumer Movement Safe From Merchants of Doubt and Greenwashing?

Aided by resources available in the palm of their hand and a new understanding that their seemingly minute economic contribution can have a significant impact when combined with others over time, consumers are voting for their own interest every day with every purchase. But the question still remains: If merchants of doubt have been able to influence mass media and government regulation, can’t they influence the information consumers are accessing? Won’t corporations use greenwashing tactics to mislead consumers and increase their profits, delaying actual change? How is a consumer really supposed to know if a product is sustainable or not?

The fact remains that as long as there is money to be made or lost, corporations will have a hand in influencing the factors that direct those funds. But this has become an old game and new factors influence the market. Certainly there will always be skeptics of global warming and environmental impact, but a growing percentage of the population is becoming increasingly conscious. Here are a few reasons to maintain faith in the conscious consumer movement:

  • The new consumer is conscious and is wary of misleading information – We’ve seen the results of corporate greed and power, we’re learning from the past, and we’re ready for change. We are part of a cultural awareness where mainstream TV shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report are created for an expanding audience and continually mock corporate greed, corruption, and bad information. As experienced consumers in our economy and as part of our culture, we are more cautious than our parents.
  • Consumers are independent – Unlike government regulation which is slow to be implemented, skewed toward the interests of few, and impacts everyone, the conscious consumer movement is a bottom-up strategy that gives a voice the the consumer. They can choose to support whatever they want by purchasing products from companies that support their personal beliefs and values. The economy is based on spending, so every dollar has an impact – everyone’s “voice” is heard.
  • In our political system we are used to a majority rule, but this is different – In our economy it doesn’t take more than 50% of consumers to shop sustainably for a change to occur. There will no doubt continue to be skeptics of anthropogenic environmental impact, and they will not become conscious consumers. But it really only takes a small group to make a big impact. If only 5% of consumers divert their spending from unethical and unsustainable companies to ethical and sustainable brands that would be more than enough to incentivize corporations to meet the demand. In 2013, the household final consumption expenditure in the US [the market value of all goods and services, including durable products (such as cars, washing machines, and home computers), purchased by households] was $11.5 trillion. 5% of that is $575 billion. That’s enough money to convince more than a few corporations to start thinking about sustainability.
  • Corporations are already starting to see the value in sustainability – Enough consumers have already started diverting their money to make an impact on the market. The sustainability and “green” niche is growing rapidly due to the demand. Cheap production of goods at the cost of the environment isn’t the only way to increase profits. Consumers have placed value in social and environmental responsibility, showing they are willing to pay more for ethical products. Patagonia is one leader in this space, successfully marketing social and environmental sustainability.
  • Technology is aiding the conscious consumer – There are already multiple apps and websites that aid consumers in making sustainable choices. Information is now in the palm of your hand so you don’t have to solely rely on a product’s label. Here are a few examples:
    • Buycott helps consumers see the link between products and corporate policy by allowing users to join “campaigns” such as “Support Local Farmers” and “Demand GMO Labeling”. Users will be notified if a product’s parent company aligns with the goals of their campaign.
    • Ethical Barcode helps consumers see the CSR rating of product’s parent company (among other product rating scores) drawn from CSRHub data.
    • Buypartisan is another app that allows consumers to “…see the political contributions of each company’s CEO, Board of Directors, political action committees and employees.”

The increased availability of product and company information that these apps offer is one of the strongest assets to the conscious consumer movement. These apps significantly increase the power of the consumer by allowing them to dig deeper into information about products, see what others are saying, and make a more informed decision. Although this technology may currently be susceptible to the concerns about greenwashing and corporate influence I posed earlier, they are a step in the right direction, can still be a valuable tool for consumers, and will evolve to meet demand.

Some projects are even starting to incorporate systems to prevent the threat of corruption and greenwashing in their applications. The key here is robust data collection and complete transparency. Robust data improves knowledge and absolute transparency prevents corruption. At Earth Accounting, we are developing a tool for conscious consumers that addresses these concerns and works in a way specifically designed to provide complete transparency, preventing corruption and greenwashing. Here are a few highlights:

  • Product data is the result of an information cooperative (ACES Coop) – A collection of groups, entities, and individuals all contributing product information into one database.
  • Complete data transparency – the source of information for every fact attributed to a product or company will be available, allowing users to discern their own opinion about the quality of information.
  • A democratic resolution process for conflicting data – A Wikipedia-like process will be set in place to resolve conflicts in data, maintaining complete transparency of the process and result.
  • User interaction – users can challenge information and submit more accurate facts. They can also notify a company to tell them why they did or did not purchase their product.

Apps and websites are empowering consumers to make better decisions every day and they significantly strengthen the consumer based sustainability movement. The threat of doubt-mongering and greenwashing still looms large in this movement and is a considerable concern, but lessons from the past help us construct systems to prevent foul play. Tools for conscious consumers will continually evolve. Some will be susceptible to corruption and greenwashing, but others will provide consumers with what they really want: complete and objective product information that helps them make educated purchasing decisions so they can confidently support ethical and sustainable brands.

Conclusions – We Look Back, Adjust, and Move Forward

“Merchants of Doubt” provides us with a great historical record of why – even with all of the scientific evidence there is to support environmental regulations – government has continued to fail in implementing sufficient legislation. From this lesson we can understand why we are in the critical position we are now and appreciate how important it is for us as consumers to take action.

Although it’s encouraging that everyday citizens are realizing they have the power to shift our economy, it is imperative that we remain aware of the tactics used by merchants of doubt in order to avoid stalling progress and repeating history. Aiding the new “conscious” consumer along the road to a circular economy is a wealth of information in the palm of their hands and with the proper systems in place, this information can become complete and remain objective, preventing manipulation from special interest groups.

With increasing amounts of reliable and complete product sustainability information, consumers will be able make more educated decisions, increasing the rate of change toward a sustainable world economy. The change in consumer preference has already influenced some corporations to embrace the value of environmental and social sustainability and surely more are to follow.

David Evans

I use my background in Environmental Studies, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Digital Marketing to explore solutions to the environmental and social issues my generation has been faced with.