People like shifting blame.
There’s a famous psychological study that suggests that the more people witness a victim in distress, the less likely any one onlooker is to do anything. This is because everyone’s thinking ‘’someone else will do something’’. Hmm… Dangerous.
A similar thing happens on a much broader scale with all sorts of issues. Today I’m thinking about it in terms of the demand and supply of non-sustainable or non-ethical, energy-intensive or wasteful commodities. Is it my fault if my stripy jumper that I like so much and which kept me warm in the autumn of 2011 when I couldn’t afford a coat was made in an inhumane sweatshop by an Asian child? Or is it New Look’s fault?
When confronted about their bad practice, whether it’s the high levels of pollution in production or the throw-away nature of the product or some other vice, the response of industry is generally something like: ‘’Oh it’s not up to us. We just produce and sell what the consumer demands!’’. Oh. Really. Well as one consumer to another, I think it’s fair to say that we only buy what’s available. Obviously. How could we purchase items that don’t exist? For example, not long ago people were being urged to ‘do their bit for the environment’ by changing their light bulbs for energy-saving ones. Of course it seems laughably naïve to suggest that just changing light bulbs could amount to anyone’s ‘bit’ – but that isn’t my point. My point is that now in the UK all light bulbs except energy-saving ones are in the process of being phased out. Soon they won’t be ‘energy-saving’ – they’ll be ordinary. This is a step in the right direction! And the step has been taken by the government, by retailers, manufacturers and energy companies. I can’t really imagine the ‘all powerful consumer’ minding too much. Do you look into the near future and see streams of irate customers flooding Screwfixs, Properjobs and B&Qs across England, with placards reading: ‘’Down with low energy bills! BRING BACK THE 60W!’’. Can’t really see it myself…
Of course I’m not saying we’re powerless. Anything but! Among other things, the strategy of ‘voting with your wallet’ is well-known and effective. You can use your money to simultaneously help fund local or ethical businesses and show the rest of the market what would win you over. For example, increased spending on organic food shows the industry it’s becoming more popular and scares agrochemical companies. It causes Tesco to widen it’s organic range and to lower the prices of that range. I guess this is what people mean when they say it’s up to the consumer. But equally, if Tesco were to extend their organic range and make it more affordable of their own accord, it is highly likely that they would enjoy increased sales of organic food. And, if the government stopped subsidizing the use of agrochemicals in farming and instead subsidized organic agriculture because of the benefit to human health (reduced cost to the NHS) and ecological biodiversity (tourism), then organic food everywhere would be much cheaper than non-organic food and practically everyone would buy it exclusively.
So who’s it up to? Well, all systems are systemic and interconnected, with knock-on effects rippling out in all directions. No one seems to want the responsibility, we all agree things should be done – but by someone else. Just bare in mind that everyone’s thinking that. So when it comes to supply and demand or demand and supply, it’s both.
We may have different sized stones but we all have the power to make ripples.