Need for a shared language of ethical consumerism

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Danielle Tucker 29th October 2020

Since we began our research on ethical consumerism, which focused on the introduction of bags for life in UK supermarkets, we have seen the rise of a general public awareness about ethical consumerism. A report from the co op in December 2019 found ethical consumerism spending had increased fourfold in the last 20 years to more than 41 billion pounds today, and there’s recent data from Defra, published in July 2020 showing that the distribution of single use plastic bags is actually down 95% since the 5p charge was brought in in 2014. Despite this we still find that there is an inconsistent use of language around single-use plastics specifically, and ethical consumerism more generally. Here we explore the implication of this lack of shared concepts for the progress on reducing single use plastic.

Confusion about recycling:

Our study asked householders about their experiences of managing single use plastics in their home and a common theme which emerged was about recycling confusion. For someone who tries to be conscious when it comes to recycling, it’s such a confusing area, you never know entirely what should be recycled. When in doubt, there were differing views about whether it was better to just include ambiguous items and let the council decide or whether doing so would infect a whole batch of recycling and do more harm than good.

Regional differences also created confusion. Whether something is technically recyclable is a different question (but the focus of packaging producers) to whether your local area has the capacity to recycle that item. This can lead to frustration amongst householders who think they have made a good purchasing choice but then find that they are unable to recycle the product effectively.

Institutional interventions to reduce the volume of single use plastics from government have tended to focus on influencing how much plastic is produced and distributed, yet a lot of the interventions from other key stakeholder such as supermarkets focus more on the recycling elements of plastic, not necessarily reduction and reduce production of plastic, but there is little connection between the two.

Whose responsibility is it?

We found multiple definitions of what single use plastics are and that institutions uses those different terminologies in completely different ways. But we also found this was reflected at the household level as well. To a certain extent we would argue that the nuances of the definition don’t really matter. But in order to come together and create change, there does need to be some common ground around what exactly the focus is on. With a lack of clarity around the language of implementation and simultaneously devolving responsibility to householders, we are asking them to do something about a problem that they feel like they don’t understand.

However well meaning and well intentioned the individual householder is, putting those intentions into practice and knowing the right thing to do is challenging. For example, when you go to the local supermarket, you’re faced by a bewildering assortment of single use plastics. Traditional perspectives on ethical consumerism (including those adopted by institutions in designing initiatives) assume that this decision making is a rational process and that consumers will consider all the options available to them before making a choice. However, it takes considerable time and resources to make those decisions and people use heuristics to guide their actions – for example choosing the product you have purchased before, or the branded item you are familiar with.

As a conscious consumer, a householder is knowledgeable about the problem of single use plastics, and therefore may feel guilty that they do not do more to solve it. Not knowing how to respond (e.g. how to recycle an item effectively) might be hindering you from taking action. When presented with so many situations where they don’t know what to do, consumers are made to feel inadequate in some way because this isn’t a problem that they can find a solution to.

In order to empower people to make that change for themselves, we have to give them the confidence to make those decisions and take action within their home environment free from criticism and potential shame at getting it wrong. To find solutions, consumers have to be motivated to be creative, to do the research, to experiment and make choices. They have to be empowered to do that. This is difficult when institutions can’t agree on what they’re trying to achieve.

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