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Feb 28

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World Transformation: Addressing Consumer Skepticism

Addressing Consumer Scepticism – Fixing Environmental Problems Needs Consumers

In a world of environmental problems the role of the consumer has become a vehicle for instrumenting significant momentum towards positive environmental change. However, as quickly as new initiatives are developed, the phrases used to describe them are whisked away to become corporate buzzwords used (often irresponsibly) by conglomerates to grab the advantage on an increasingly environmentally aware consumer.

This vast consumer resource is constantly cajoled and persuaded into supporting a myriad of environmental causes. But as is so often the case with our less than ideal human nature, the sad fact is that often they are not supporting the causes they intended but rather continuing to fuel commercially savvy companies that are “jumping on the sustainability bandwagon”. This can result in consumer scepticism towards real environmental initiatives and erode genuine attempts at social enterprise by companies who are legitimately trying to make a difference.

But how are consumers to decide which is shonky business tactics and which is genuine corporate environmental responsibility?

The answer is through the development of independent certification bodies that certify and approve companies and specific products as meeting their stringent requirements on sustainability, environmental or ethical practices. One excellent example is the Rainforest Alliance Initiative. This organisation, formed in 1986 is helping to arrest the major drivers of deforestation and environmental problems by ensuring that millions of acres of working forests, farms, ranch lands and hotel properties are managed according to rigorous sustainability standards.

Certification bodies like Rainforest Alliance link sustainably managed businesses to conscientious consumers, who identify their goods and services through the easily and increasingly recognisable trademarked seals. For example, the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal is a small green frog, a representative of the endangered and delicate ecosystem, which Rainforest Alliance is working to preserve. This initiative has proven successful in more than 70 countries around the world and is strong evidence that a sustainable approach, which protects the environment, ensures good working conditions and provides businesses with the tools to operate efficiently and responsibly, not only is possible but is a thriving example of social enterprise causing positive change via modern consumers.

A similar body is the Fairtrade Foundation, which is an independent non-profit organisation that monitors the labelling of products in accordance with internationally agreed Fairtrade standards. The Foundation was established in 1992 and has member oganizations that include Banana Link, Methodist Relief and Development Fund, Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, People & Planet, SCIAF, Shared Interest Foundation, Soroptimist International , Tearfund and the United Reformed Church. The Fairtrade Foundation operates in over 21 countries across Europe, Japan, North America, Mexico and Australia/New Zealand as well as networks of producer organisations from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Such certification bodies provide the assurance and integrity required to generate consumer awareness and support. Consequently, these initiatives help to promote consumer driven social enterprise that can make a significant positive difference. By engaging in these small daily choices, e.g. purchasing a cup of coffee with the Rainforest Alliance seal on the cup, the mass of consumers can swing significant economic and social momentum towards the prevention of environmental problems as well as provide a positive point of difference for the company selling the certified product. It is these independent certification bodies that can help direct this consumer momentum towards some of the more specific and urgent of the world’s environmental problems.

Clearly, if environmental issues are to be properly addressed via consumer driven social enterprise then the role of integrity of products and independent certification become incredibly important. Today’s consumers are so bombarded with sophisticated marketing and promotion, they have a right to be both weary and even wary of uncertified promotions.  Many companies see tangible economic benefits in both real and skin deep commitments to environmental causes.

The phenomenon of ‘green washing’ and highly professional marketing & communication and community engagement is so prevalent, that trust and proven integrity is the key currency for environmentally conscious consumers today. With this trust consumers can provide a bridge between the social entrepreneurial initiative of the company and the enormous bank of energy and resources that is the wider population. Most importantly, independent certification can arrest the consumer scepticism that may increasingly be a hindrance to genuine initiatives. As such, independent certification will play a progressively important role towards the development of corporate social enterprise and the drive towards sustainable environmental change.

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