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The Power of Green Consumers
Review of Vital Signs 2002

Well-informed consumers are emerging as a new force in the global struggle to create an environmentally sustainable world, reports a new study by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental and social policy research organization. Aided by labeling programs, standards, and an expanding group of social and environmental certification organizations, the world's consumers are 'voting with their wallets' for products and services that promote sustainable development.

'Some free market advocates claim that the market automatically gives people all the choices they want and all the information they need,' says Michael Renner, Worldwatch Senior Researcher and Project Director for Vital Signs 2002. 'But what consumers are demonstrating is that they want more environmentally acceptable choices than the market has been delivering, and more trustworthy information about the social and environmental impact of the products they might buy.'

'Vital Signs 2002' produced with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the W. Alton Jones Foundation - documents many instances where consumers, often aided by information-brokering organizations, are seeking out goods and services that promote sustainable development:

  • The Mexico-based Forest Stewardship Council has certified over 25 million hectares of commercial forest in 54 countries as meeting social and environmental standards for sustainable forestry, more than double the area in 1998 (p. 70).
  • Worldwide, buyers of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) have eliminated the need for nearly 40 medium-sized, coal-fired power plants (p. 46).
  • At the seafood counter, consumers can now find rock lobster, cockles, hoki, mackerel, herring, and salmon that carry the Marine Stewardship Council's logo as having been harvested under environmentally responsible management (pp. 124-125).
  • Thai consumers have used information from an appliance-labeling program to drive the market share of energy efficient, single-door refrigerators from 12 percent in 1996 to 96 percent in 1998 (p. 132).
  • In 21 European countries, beachgoers follow the ratings of the European Blue Flag campaign to find some 2,750 beaches and marinas with high environmental standards and sanitary and safe facilities (pp. 124-125).
  • Coffee drinkers in the US and Canada can ask for their coffee to be brewed from beans carrying the Bird Friendly seal of approval from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. This program certifies that the beans meet standards for shade farming and organic production (pp. 124-125).

'Changing consumption and production patterns will be high on the agenda of this year's World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)," says Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of UNEP. 'Consumers will not save the world by themselves, but they are welcome allies in a struggle where we are going to need all the help we can get."

Vital Signs 2002 highlights several sectors where consumer pressure could be pivotal in getting industry and regulatory bodies to step up to the plate. The electronics industry in 2001 produced 60 million transistors for every man, woman, and child on Earth. California's Santa Clara County, the birthplace of the semiconductor industry, now contains more toxic waste sites than any other county in the United States. In 1997, more than 2.9 million tons of e-waste ended up in US landfills, and by 2004, tens of millions of cell phones and an estimated 315 million computers may be headed for our dumps.

'We tend to think of the 'new economy' as being cleaner than the 'smokestack economy,'' Renner says. 'But manufacturing semiconductors is chemical-intensive. And the short life-span of these products is creating mountains of electronics waste, poisoning groundwater supplies, and endangering human health. Cell phone and computer users should be demanding that manufacturers take their products back, and design them to be recycled instead of dumped.'

The cruise ship industry is another industry ripe for pressure from consumers. The number of people taking a cruise vacation more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, to almost 10 million passengers a year. The industry's environmental record has been dismal. Overall, the world's cruise ships discharge some 33 million tons of raw sewage and garbage into the oceans each year. Cruise ship passengers could use their vacation dollars to favor companies that meet strict environmental standards.

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