Friday, January 20, 2012

The Case for Education in Driving Corporate Sustainability and Green Consumerism

Because consumer culture is so deeply engrained within American society, it will probably require a major and rather unlikely paradigm shift before Americans begin to reduce their spending in the name of being more responsible citizens. Therefore, the push should be toward responsible consumer behavior instead of less spending (though this can certainly be debated!). Directing the money consumers spend toward more responsible products and companies is feasible and requires little sacrifice on the part of the consumer. Moreover, harnessing the purchasing power of the millions of consumers in the United States and using it to promote sustainable business practices can have a positive impact on the global environment and society. If consumers’ disposable income was effectively directed toward more sustainable producers, distributors, and retailers, a clear message could be sent to the rest of corporate America regarding the importance of conducting business in a responsible manner. Best practice would need to become common practice in order for companies to stay afloat in such a consumer-driven climate.

In order for this to be effective, companies that lead the way in terms of their environmental performance need to be rewarded with the patronage of concerned consumers. Unfortunately, consumers are confused about which companies are genuine in their efforts to minimize impacts because of the prevalence of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a major obstacle in driving green consumerism because it makes it difficult for consumers to distinguish between truly responsible products and those that are only responsible at the surface. Companies that are genuine in their corporate responsibility efforts cannot reap the full benefits of consumer preference if there are greenwashed products in competition with them.

Though the FTC Green Guides have certainly helped curbed the prevalence of greenwashing, perhaps the most effective strategy in driving green consumerism is consumer education. Consumers need to be armed with reliable information about products and companies in order to make environmentally responsible choices. Customarily, consumer education has included life skills such as budgeting, balancing a checking account, preparing for a job, and performing price comparisons. However, consumer education has recently evolved to include educating consumers on the environmental qualities of a particular product and the environmental impact of consumerism in general. This will be integral in shifting consumer spending toward greener products and companies.

Indeed, current literature suggests that education positively impacts responsible consumer behavior. A 2010 study evaluated the impact of free-choice environmental education methods such as product labels, packaging, mass media, internet, and attendance of meetings on green consumption behavior (Pearcy). The study analyzed 236 survey responses and found a positive, significant relationship between participation in informal environmental education and green purchasing (Pearcy, 2010). Additionally, an economic study on whether green production can replace public and governmental interventions in the marketplace suggests that increased education of consumers is necessary before this can be achieved (Eriksson, 2004). The study demonstrates that there is a significant need for education about environmental impacts of products and services in order to increase the degree of green consumerism and in turn, decrease the overall environmental impact of the business sector (Eriksson, 2004). In sum, such studies show consumer education is a significant strategy for reforming the consumer product landscape and benefitting the environment and society.


Pearcy, D.H. (2010). Understanding the role of free choice environmental education in green consumption behavior. International Journal of Environment and Sustainable Development, 9,(1), 123-148.

Eriksson, C. (2004). Can green consumerism replace environmental regulation- A differentiated products example. Resource and Energy Economics, 26, 281–293

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