Merry Xmas and Happy New Year: Next steps and sustainable consumer behavior insights

This article is a first contribution of a trans-disciplinary applied research work in sustainable consumer behavior.

Did you enjoy the holidays? Were they as deeply satisfying as you hoped for? 

Holiday celebrations are over, another 2’366’000 Christmas trees have been sold in Austria alone, most of them are waiting to be recycled after a few short days of being admired. At the same time, most of these 2’366’000 buyers like to go for a walk in the forest – trees are essential for this natural experience!

At a superficial level, most people are aware of the big environmental issues, this awareness being perhaps limited to climate change, biodiversity loss (especially elephants, rhinos, pandas, polar bears, whales, bees, over-fishing), air pollution, deforestation, and plastic in the oceans. At the same superficial level, people care about major social issues, such as poverty, hunger, inequality, discrimination, violence, stress, insecurity. Furthermore, when asked, most people in most countries express “concern” for these issues.

MAK Wien, January 2018

So, let’s follow up with our consumer behavior experience: during the same holiday period, how does our tradition to offer presents square with our concern for the environment or other humans? Once it comes to deciding what present to offer a family member or close friend, consumers are willing to compromise, or even completely ignore the impact of their purchases. They end up with yet another half-toxic plastic toy for their child, a blouse made (by someone else’s child labor) in India, or the latest Nintendo gadget destined to soon become e-waste… isn’t this strange, as many expressed concern about the specific problem they are making worse by their own actions. Do we care at all? An excellent article about Xmas shopping, “The Gift of Death”, by George Monbiot, was published in the Guardian in 2012 – if anything, it’s even more relevant in 2018.

Beyond Christmas, in spite of all knowledge and expressed “concern”, most people behave in a massively self-destructive way most of the time, directly and personally contributing to the problem. Let’s look at this self-destructive, yet perfectly “normal” daily behavior: eating processed food based on industrial agriculture, traveling a lot, organizing one’s life around a car, following fashion in clothes or electronics, and simply participating in the consumer society all damage the environment (for example climate, biodiversity loss, deforestation, air-water-soil pollution), undermine healthy society (promoting discrimination, inequality, “lifestyle” diseases, poisoning from toxic waste, fueling conflicts and wars, displacing populations), and also destroy personal well-being (unhealthy lifestyle, poor nutrition, short-term focus, lack of meaningful social connections, stress and uncertainty).

Thus, it is a matter of fact that human behavior has to be seen as something complex that cannot be split into parts to be analyzed separately (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2010). No internal and external factors justify a deconstructive individual behavior. As of today, researchers from different fields like psychology, sociology and environmental sciences have not yet found answers to this gap between being conscious about the need to change in regard to sustainability, and the willingness of change in regard to consumer realities.

Reasonably assuming that most people in most countries cannot be completely crazy, we must also assume there are other, even more powerful, forces at work. This will be the initial focus of our research.

Of course, a significant and growing minority is indeed starting to change, in areas as varied as nutrition (vegans, vegetarians, locavores and many other flavors), consumerism and shopping, zero waste, transportation and many more.

What are your resolutions for 2018? After one week, do you still expect to achieve them?

New Year Resolutions are a tempting way of “turning the leaf”, repeatedly and unsuccessfully practiced by a sizable majority. Much research in psychology explains why, and offers suggestions on how to improve the success rate, here is a good example published just last week. But, as it happens, 55% of health-related resolutions and many of the remaining ones are examples of willpower trying to fight the system of normal daily behavior described above, the “normative expectation”, a shared belief about how to behave. Of course, the “system” usually wins. Making sustainability the default, the new normative expectation is clearly our challenge.

MAK Wien, January 2018

The authors were inspired by an applied art exhibition “Aesthetics of change”, in the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, Austria, a presentation of a trans-disciplinary work, coming from universities around the world, with insights in regard to sustainability. Beside a “future room” showing how consumers can access knowledge by simply pronouncing keywords, or standing in front of a camera showing an art photo of themselves, or observing a robot perfectly drawing a Mars landscape (who is surprised by this anymore?), we see this gap between visitors understanding future solutions and their daily consumer behavior. But there is one single message: any member of any social-technical group can become a change agent in regard to sustainability.

This brings us to our applied research question: Why do people continue destroying their own environment instead of changing their way of consuming?

We hope you’ll follow us on this exciting journey, and wish you a great, sustainable 2018 !

Authors:

Sascha Nick, BSL Professor

Alexandra Broillet, BSL Professor

 

“The black hand” of Chevron in Ecuador

Usually petroleum companies can be really harmful for the environment and sometimes can damage the landscape of the whole region where they work, causing future problems on the inhabitants of those regions and to their way of living. This is what happened in Ecuador with the former company TEXACO when they damaged the whole landscape of the zone of Lago Agrio in the province of Sucumbios, north-west of Ecuador. Today TEXACO belongs to the company CHEVRON, who is known as one of the least ethical companies globally, because they have been accused of tax evasion as well a number of environmental infractions in several countries around the world (Kiser).

How did all this happen?

In 1967 there was a discovery of petroleum under the soil of the Ecuadorian jungle. The government opened a bidding process for the extraction of the oil. One of the companies that got one of those contracts was Texaco. They were operating in Ecuador for around 28 years until 1992. That year Texaco stopped their activities in Ecuador and just left the country.

When they left the country, they also left behind them around 1000 open toxic waste pits with all the toxic wastes caused by their extraction activities. These pools full of harmful chemicals and from the extraction per se produced around eighteen billion gallons of toxic and highly saline “formation waters“. These toxicities began to flow into the rivers near the extraction site. This would not be that serious if these communities had potable water or a good system of water provision, but the contaminated water is the water that they consume and irrigate their crops with.

The polluted water caused diseases on the skin, the stomach, cancer, miscarriages, birth defects, dead livestock, sick fish, and the near-extinction of several tribes from the villagers of those small communities. Some of them got organized and suited the company TEXACO for all the damages that they had caused to the environment and to the people from that part of Ecuador. Since 1993, a group of Ecuadoreans had been pursuing an apparently fruitless legal struggle to hold Texaco responsible for environmental destruction in the region (Benali).

But what happened during the Lawsuit?

We arrived at the year 2001 and the big company TEXACO was acquired by the even bigger company CHEVRON. Everybody knows that when you acquire a company you also acquire the responsibilities and problems that the acquired company could have, for instance, a lawsuit against this company due to environmental damages in a country in South-America.

An Ecuadorian tribunal from the city of Lago Agrio decided in justice to put a fine of 9.5 billion dollars to Chevron for all the damages previously described. CHEVRON dismissed this decision saying that everything was already solved and that they have nothing to do with this issue, even saying that all was already remediated by TEXACO before.

“Chevron’s insistence that Texaco undertook and completed a “remediation” in Ecuador is a clear acknowledgement that Texaco is responsible for causing significant environmental damage. That said, the scientific evidence in the trial has made it increasingly clear that Texaco’s self-described “remediation” was nothing more than a choreographed fraud designed to evade any level of accountability for the company’s reckless use of sub-standard operational practices in the planet’s most delicate ecosystem” (AMAZONWATCH).

To avoid this lawsuit the company alleged that Ecuador was involved in a case of bribery due. They spied on the judges in Ecuador who were in charge of this case.

“Chevron invested tens of millions of dollars in its legal defense as well as counterattacks against the plaintiffs and Ecuadorean officials. It has long argued that a 1998 agreement Texaco signed with Ecuador after a $40 million cleanup absolves it of any liability in the case. The plaintiffs say the cleanup was a sham and didn’t exempt third-party claims” (CBS News).

The current government is running a Campaign called “La mano Sucia de Chevron” (The dirty hand of Chevron) to show the world how they had destroyed the Ecuadorian environment.

For more information you can always watch these videos:

The True Story of Chevron’s Ecuador Disaster

Chevron: The Real Human Story in Ecuador

Author: Mauricio Chavez, Master in International Business, 2015
Business School Lausanne

The Cost of Water

How do you imagine a world of the future without water issues?

For many of us living in the developed world, in Switzerland or elsewhere, the first question that might come to mind is: What issues?

Sure, we might read about a dry spell in a newspaper, but most of us are oblivious to the extent and consequences of poor management of water resources, often created by unscrupulous businesses exploiting resources, beyond the occasional spike in our grocery bill. Continue reading

CSR – Cooperative social responsibility?

As a professor of  Business Responsibility and Sustainability, I have had my work cut out this term making the business case for CSR to students from a wide range of backgrounds. When some people hear the term CSR their eyes glaze over and they think, this isn’t for me, this can’t work in my country. We have too many other things to deal with first (poverty, corruption, lack of investment in basic infrastructure…). But CSR doesn’t have to be expensive and doesn’t have to be referred to as CSR. Continue reading

Planetary resilience. What is it and why does it matter?

Building Sustainable Legacies

When it comes to resilience, what good does it do a single business or industry to prevail if it does so at the expense of other sub-systems or even the bigger system itself? I’ve shared my views in Planetary Resilience on PwC’s Resilience site: http://pwc.to/12PscYV

What are your thoughts on that?

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