Sustainability is usually framed as a problem of consumer choice, in which the solution to the climate crisis is in recycling, eating more organic vegetables, or cutting back on single-use plastic. This makes a sharp contrast with the current public health crisis—in which government, citizens, and business are combining to shelter in place and work from home and to provide the welfare, medical equipment, and supplies needed to grapple with the challenge. When it comes to the climate crisis, however, consumers’ wallets must carry the burden, as companies cite the lack of consumer demand for sustainable products and services as the reason they can’t become more sustainable (while government policy fails to provide the leadership and economic incentives for business or consumers to assume the urgency required).
When both business and government pass the buck, then, consumer choice becomes the only path forward to sustainability. But can consumers be held responsible for driving corporate and government responsibility? Should they be? Could they ever be successful in doing so?
The answer is no. Offering sustainable products and being a sustainable organization are not the same thing and managers cannot expect customers to buy the company a way out of their (and our) sustainability challenge. Instead, business leaders must partner with government and society to re-focus their companies on new forms of market exchange, ones that will not be based on unrealistic expectations of consumers and capital markets. Ask yourself: how much direct influence consumers’ wallets (or even shareholders) have on whether you decide to switch to renewable energy; hire a female Board Director; upgrade workers’ salaries and benefits or hire a disabled employee? Sustainability will not be sold on the marketplace. It cannot be one choice among many. The entire business must be re-imagined preparing the organization for the challenges it faces.