One of the reasons I embarked on a low/no consumption approach to environmentalism for the No Impact project is that I don't know who to believe when it comes to trying to consume environmentally. I've read, for example, that certain hardware stores put "green" labels on a brand of chainsaw because they are gas efficient--ignoring the fact that chopping down trees is the quintessentially non-green act.
In some ways, therefore, disengaging from the market is easier than engaging with it ethically. It is too hard to wade through the public relations and advertising spin.
So I've been thinking some about who I wish I could buy from. I've been thinking about my fantasy company, a company I wish I could have a relationship with. And of course, that fantasy company would be one that I could trust. That is the first element. I would like to be able to find manufacturers and retailers whose word I could rely on.
How could you get me to trust you? There are, at this early stage of my thinking, three elements:
1. You need to consider responsibility towards the environment as part of your mission and you need to demonstrate this by your actions and your words. The typical production of CFL bulbs in very heavy plastic packaging, for example, spells cashing in on consumer concern about the environment but not a true mission of responsibility for the environment. I may buy your bulbs, but I don't trust that you care about the environment and I feel no loyalty to you. I will switch brands as soon as someone acts more responsibly.
By the way, my favorite CFLs are hand-delivered to me by NYC's Solar One. They come in recycled cardboard packaging, and a percentage of the proceeds goes to light-for-literacy charities that work in developing countries. But if you provided an easy way to dispose of the mercury-containing light bulbs--demonstrating your responsibility--I might switch to you.
2. You must provide transparency in your operations and products so that I can decide for myself how sincere your efforts are. Let's face it, in the internet age, you can't keep a secret any way. The moment you piss off an employee, they're just going to spill your beans. So, use the information age to your advantage and use it to show me how forthright you're willing to be. Give me the bad as well as the good. Tell me what's wrong with how you're operating and tell me how you're trying to fix it. I'm not going to believe you if you tell me it's all good anyway. Get an environmental audit of your company's operations and post it on your site with your plan of action. Don't just tell me your buying offsets. Show me what damage you do and let me in on your remediation efforts and tell me what you're doing to mitigate your damage in the meantime.
Back to the CFL bulb example: tell me why you package in plastic and how you're planning to get away from it. Explain to me about the problems of mercury to the environment and tell me what you are doing to make a bulb without it in the future. Show me that you are involved in mercury cleanups as a way to offset the damage done by your product.
3. But don't let me catch you trying to spin the information, or I'm just going to someone I think I can really trust to care about the triple bottom line.
4. Finally, you must demonstrate your responsiveness to changing circumstances--including technology, news, trends, and customer concerns. I want to know that you are continually keeping yourself up to date with current environmental issues and problems. I want to see you moving with the times. When a technology to produce CFL bulbs without mercury emerges, I don't want to hear you trying to convince me that they are no good. I want you to explain to bring the first to bring them to market or to explain to me why you decided it is better to wait.
Now, here's the reward for you: if you can convince me that, most of the time, buying from you is the best environmental choice, then I will become your loyal customer. We will have a relationship and, because you've treated me right, I'll want to treat you right too. I will even forgive some of your mistakes if you're forthright about them and can show you're trying to correct them, as long as I still believe in your environmental mission.
Triple bottom line image courtesy of gcbl.org. Click on it to enlarge.
PS Don't forget that the National Day of Climate Action, where we get to let the legislators know that we want action on the environment, is coming this Saturday, November 3. Click here to find your local event.