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  • Writer's pictureJulie de Vaan

Companies who focus on the consumer for sustainability: behavioural change or greenwashing?

Large companies that focus on the consumer for sustainable behavioral change sometimes attract criticism and are accused of greenwashing. Is this justified? In this article, we discuss the responsibility of both large organizations and consumers in creating a more sustainable future.

Systemic change from large companies is needed, but it's not happening fast enough

The current system, focused on growth and consumption, leads to climate change and the depletion of the earth's resources. Large organizations play an important role in making our economy and society more sustainable. They have the means and power to realize systemic change and reduce their enormous impact on the environment.

Many large organizations do work internally with good intentions towards sustainability. But often this is too slow and profit maximization remains a priority. To achieve systemic change, large organizations must undergo fundamental change. This means that profit maximization should no longer be the highest priority, but sustainability and social responsibility should be central. This requires a different way of thinking and acting, where companies reconsider their entire business model and their role in society.

Concrete steps are also necessary, even if that means more responsibility for the consumer

But that doesn't mean that in the meantime, they shouldn't take small, concrete steps to reduce their impact, even if this means placing more responsibility on the consumer. Because even these types of changes and transitions can make an important contribution to a more sustainable future and are sometimes a prerequisite for the success or start of a larger systemic change. Large companies can therefore appeal to behavioral change in the consumer, as long as it is not a distraction and does not come at the expense of their own efforts to become more sustainable.

The consumer is not exempt from responsibility

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that consumers themselves bear an important responsibility for reducing their negative impact on the environment. Although companies produce products and packaging, ultimately it is consumers who decide whether or not to throw their empty packaging into the environment, or when to take the car and when to take the bike, or whether or not to add meat to their spaghetti. Even these small behaviors are a prerequisite for a joint effort to keep the earth livable.

In short, it is not fair to immediately accuse large organizations that focus on the consumer for sustainable behavioral change of greenwashing. Both parties have a responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable future and can support each other in this. As long as large companies do not hide behind the actions of the consumer and remain serious and critical about the sustainability of their own organization, then they may also focus on the consumer for behavioral change.

An example of a recent experiment that places (too) much responsibility on the consumer but can also stimulate awareness and behavioral change is the collaboration between Albert Heijn and True Price. They offer consumers the choice between the store price of €2.00 and the actual price of €2.08 for a cup of coffee, including the environmental and social impact. This experiment places a huge responsibility on the consumer, who must choose and pay more for a more sustainable option. Therefore, let us emphasize that companies and retailers such as Albert Heijn should mainly bear the costs of making their offerings more sustainable. And that true pricing should not come at the expense of solving various problems in the coffee chain. However, showing and passing on social and environmental costs to the consumer can also influence their awareness and behavior. Do consumers, for example, already know that their consumption behavior also incurs costs for the environment and society? And now consumers are given at least the opportunity to compensate for these costs and damages, even within a poorly functioning system. It is now the task of Albert Heijn and other retailers to further improve and sustainably develop their systems.

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