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‘Choice editing’ is better than changing behaviour

March 2009

High street retailers should offer less choice so that consumers are forced to buy goods that are more socially and environmentally responsible, a leading sustainability expert has said.

Alan Knight, the UK government’s sustainable development commissioner, told last month’s Green Retail conference in London: ‘People get prickly about choice editing when it comes to sustainability, but retailers do it all the time in other ways. There are probably 750 washing machines on the market but you won’t find a store offering all of them because it would just overwhelm the customer. So if you accept that kind of choice editing, then surely you can also take out all the social and environmental problems while doing it.’  

Knight, who is B&Q’s former head of CSR, said the do-it-yourself retail chain had shown that choice editing led by sustainability considerations can work without harming the bottom line.

‘B&Q used to offer a wide range of wooden toilet seats, many of which were made from slash-and-burn timber from China,’ he said. ‘Those models were 45 per cent cheaper, but we made the decision to stock only seats made with Forest Stewardship Council timber, and that reduced consumer choice dramatically. But we still sold seats and the prices eventually came down.

‘By doing what we did, we had no need to spend, say, £1million on a campaign to encourage people to buy FSC timber toilet seats. They just did it anyway.’

Knight, who is also a sustainable development adviser to Fortnum & Mason, SABMiller and Virgin Group, told delegates that waiting for consumers to change their buying habits is no longer an option, and that expensive corporate campaigns to educate people into changing behaviour usually fail.

He argued that consumer choice was ‘overplayed’, and that shoppers actually prefer to have fewer decisions to make. ‘We should make judgements for them and not offer them blatantly unsustainable products,’ he said.

Other delegates who supported Knight’s argument included Louise Green, head of sustainability at the cosmetics retailer Neal’s Yard Remedies, who said: ‘We should edit out all the choices that have negative social and environmental impacts. Companies can do so much through choice editing.’

Conference delegates also heard that enlightened businesses are becoming more supportive of corporate responsibility regulation. Erica Hauver, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ lead partner on sustainability and climate change, said many companies that have taken a leadership position on CSR now feel the playing field should be levelled.

‘Governments often thinks business doesn’t want regulation, but many companies feel there’s only a certain point you can get to without being at a disadvantage,’ she said.

Katherine Symonds, Tesco’s sustainability manager, argued there was ‘a really important role’ for regulation that enables companies to work in a ‘clear landscape’. ‘At Tesco we’ve had some frustrations where we’ve lacked direction from government in this area,’ she said.




Alan Knight | UK & NI Ireland | Product Responsibility

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