Some years ago, in teaching a sustainable manufacturing module, we asked everyone in the room to identify themselves as belonging to one of three groups; the deep greens, the pale greens, or the sceptics.
By way of definition, the deep greens are people who use an assessment of environmental harm as the major driving force behind the choices they make. The pale greens consider environmental harm among a number of other factors when making a choice, and the sceptics don’t consider the environment at all. They are so-called because they don’t believe that the choices they make influence climate change, etc.
(The language of ‘deep greens’ and ‘pale greens’ hasn’t really caught on, but it’s sometimes seen in the literature; for example in this report.)
With the exception of a couple of outliers, virtually everyone in the room was a pale green. Perhaps that’s unsurprising: it’s comfortable in the middle-ground. Also, students tend to be highly sensitive towards political correctness. Or maybe – just maybe – it means that our future is a little bit brighter, because those up-and-coming young people care about the environment far more than previous generations.
Unless they grow cynical and ‘pragmatic’ as they get older, and start to make compromises, of course. But if they don’t… industry is going to have to clean up its act, in order to serve them.
From a business point of view, deep greens don’t matter, because they don’t buy things. Deep greens have far less of a hold over corporations because ‘make do and mend’ doesn’t show up on their balance sheet, and never has. These consumers are baffling to big business, literally because they don’t consume… or not much. The pale greens, though: they’re on the rise. They don’t just want low-carbon products and services; they want ethical sourcing, and the reassurance that they’re doing the right thing.
The sceptics, big business already has a firm grip on. These people eagerly absorb all the blessings that an industrialised society can bestow, perhaps even to the point of getting into debt. (If this quiz about your green lifestyle is right, that’s one significant factor.)
The sceptics (in our class, we elected to call them the greys, since each of the other factions was a colour…) don’t offer a route to growth, since they’re already consuming everything they can. Plus they might make up a smaller proportion of society in the future… so unless the greys manage to increase their spending power tremendously, only the pale greens are going to matter.
Market forces, driving a shift towards a ‘green’ future. Of course there’s no guarantee that pale greens make their purchasing decisions on the basis of good science: they could be hoodwinked. (Some more recent posts discuss this, including the one about ‘greenwash’, and the evaluation of the Toyota Prius.) Still, these are interesting times.
Supply chains are going to come under increasing scrutiny. A customer-facing business might sell a ‘nice’ product that is safe, long-lasting and exhibits low energy consumption… but that ‘nice’ product might still have ‘nasty’ suppliers. An apparently ‘nice’ product might feature strip-mined minerals, illegally logged timber, precious stones that funded a civil war, or the products of child labour…
In the age of the Internet it doesn’t take long for a scandal to circle the globe. Manufacturers have grudgingly accepted that they need to make their own operations as clean and energy-efficient as possible; now they need to demand the same of all their suppliers – and their suppliers’ suppliers. Twenty-first century supplier qualification is getting a lot more complicated.