What assures consumers on climate change?

The initial phase of What Assures Consumers? with the UK National Consumer Council (2006) illustrated that the field of ethical consumerism is coming of age. There were notable examples of how it is being mainstreamed: ‘Product Red’ with Gap Inc. as well Marks & Spencer’s ‘Look Behind the Label’ campaign. It also highlighted the need to adopt a considered approach for those interested in assuring consumers as it relates to priority issues, the choice of communication pathways, and the source of information itself. Based on this we proposed a ‘health check’ for consumer assurance, providing step-by-step guidance for practitioners. The current phase with Consumers International builds on this robust platform, focusing on the theme of climate change in a global context. What we find is that beyond the well worn challenge of trading off core fundamentals (like price and quality) with ethical considerations (such as fairtrade and climate change), from an accountability point of view, we also now need to ensure that ‘information rich’ consumers can clearly see what they are expected to do. But also see who else is doing what. Only then will they feel assured that their actions have an impact and that everyone else is doing their bit too. Thereby we need to steel ourselves to debate out dilemmas between potentially conflicting ethical criteria. In the instance of our carbon footprint and international development, there is an emerging argument regarding the air miles of fairtrade products given the fact that the livelihoods of millions of workers in poor countries are dependent on such trade. And conversely there is confusion over the development value of carbon offsetting like planting trees in overseas communities too. Clearly from the conclusions of the What Assures Consumers? research, there is a role for positive consumer behaviour to contribute toward the fight against climate change as part of a broader set of activities. And within this, for business and government action to address any shortfalls in current purchasing practice via a balanced mix of regulation, labels and verification standards, product innovation, and consumer education.

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