World eco-summit in Rio must come down to earth

The June 20-22 UN sustainable development conference in Rio, 20 years after the first Earth Summit, comes with the latest grave warnings for the planet. Does alarmist rhetoric still work to alter consumer behavior toward the environment?

Tsering Topgyal/AP Photo
An Indian boy looks for reusable material in the polluted waters of the Yamuna River in New Delhi, India

Global leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro June 20-22 to take stock of the progress made since the first world conference on the environment in 1992. They may not be a happy lot.

Like that earlier Earth Summit in Rio, this one has been preceded by alarming reports of the dangers to the planet from human activities, such as overfishing and fossil-fuel burning.

The official summit report, a 525-page document issued Wednesday by the United Nations Environment Program, cites “significant progress” in only 4 of 90 crucial environmental goals over the past five years.

“This is an indictment,” said Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations agency. “We live in an age of irresponsibility.”

Another report by a team of scholars, published in the journal Nature and timed for the Rio meeting, warns of a possible ecological tipping point. Human use of Earth’s land surface could reach 50 percent by 2025, it states, causing biological changes that could easily be irreversible.

Such reports hark back to a famous 1972 report, Limits to Growth, by the Club of Rome. That report’s predictions of impending gloom failed to pan out. But more than that, a string of such reports since then has raised the question of whether alarmist rhetoric about the environment can really change people’s habits in their use of natural resources.

Certainly, government regulation and taxes have altered consumer behavior to some degree. People litter less, recycle more, and conserve fuel more wisely. But so much of what is needed now for sustainable development requires that consumers act in voluntary and ethical ways toward the exploitation of nature – and toward future generations.

Perhaps an alternative method of persuasion besides alarmist rhetoric can be found in the latest market research about the buying habits of so-called ethical consumers. These are the people who buy everyday products and services for a greater cause, such as saving forests or helping poor farmers.

Certainly, more consumers are demanding these goods, even if the prices are higher. Yet researchers also find consumers often say they want such products but then don’t buy them. One 2005 study found that 30 percent of consumers state they would purchase ethically – but only 3 percent of them actually do.

“Stated ethical intentions rarely translate into actual ethical buying behavior at the moment of truth – the cash register,” reports a 2010 research study in the Journal of Business Ethics.

This “intention-behavior gap” is a puzzle to companies trying to sell these products. Yet a number of market researchers are coming up with ways to pitch ethical wares so that people buy them for a higher purpose than their own immediate needs.

A 2012 article in the Journal of Marketing, for example, looks at consumer reluctance to buy fair-trade goods. It found that such indifference is caused by “a lack of confidence that fair-trade products have the potential to actually restore justice.” When companies can assure consumers of the impact of their purchases, however, demand increases.

As lessons are learned in the ethical-consumer market, they could change the global discussion on the environment. People react more to positive pitches than fearmongering. Yet they also need to know that their actions can make a difference in reality, not just in theory.

Perhaps the Rio summit can help alter the tone away from fire-and-brimstone environmentalism. One can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

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