Shopping without a conscience

David Eriksson, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Borås. After completing an industrial economics programme, he embarked on research about potential synergies between logistics and customer requirements, as well as added value in supply chains (order, supplier and delivery management).

One recurring conundrum was the human tendency to buy products without being concerned about how they have been manufactured. We may have read all about abusive working conditions, but we throw caution to the winds once we get to the store.

“My reflections led me to switch gears and focus on the reasons that businesses fail to assume responsibility for sustainable production,” Dr Eriksson says. “I encountered a number of psychological hypotheses that might explain such behaviour. I took that information and applied it to the ways that various businesses deal with their suppliers.

“I was a bit startled to learn that the strategies that individuals use to absolve themselves of responsibility nicely suited businesses as well. Among the strategies are moral relativism (‘child labourers would be in even worse shape otherwise’), passing the buck (‘we have socially conscious agreements and our suppliers need to live up to them’) and downplaying the consequences (‘our business is just a drop in the bucket’).

“Lack of ethical responsibility is often related to structures that protect power while clouding transparency and insight. That said, an organisation in itself is incapable of weighing ethical considerations – only the human beings of flesh and blood who work for them can perform such tasks.”

According to Dr Eriksson, both consumers and business executives would benefit from greater knowledge about the tendency of ethical responsibility to fade into the background. Once you understand that dynamic, you have an easier time accepting accountability and making decisions that promote sustainability.

What role does a company’s image of itself play?

A company’s self-image is crucial to the way it tackles sustainability concerns. Dr Eriksson and Olof Brunninge at Jönköping University are exploring the question. How does a company’s view of itself affect its decisions when developing processes, establishing contacts with suppliers and setting terms of delivery? Businesses that explicitly identify themselves as oriented towards sustainability will obviously take a different kind of approach.

Dr Eriksson’s research has zeroed in Fairphone, a smartphone manufacturer that makes no bones about its interest in sustainability. The business pursues a determined effort to identify sustainable solutions and exhibits unwavering transparency in terms of both challenges and processes.

“Fairphone was an interest group that reconstituted itself in order to exert more influence,” Dr Eriksson says. “Sustainability is in their chromosomes. Their phones are made of raw materials that have been processed in the interests of life and the environment and that are easy to recycle by virtue of design that facilitates separation at source. The business is non-profit and they scrap and recycle two phones for every new one they sell. The concept is as responsible as it is unusual.”

Not-to-do list

It’s not always so simple to know which business decisions promote sustainability and which ones get in the way. Göran Svensson, Director of Research at the Oslo School of Management, and Dr Eriksson collaborated on an article about “unsustainability” for the purpose of boiling the discussion down to its essence and stimulating down-to-earth discussions.

“We sat down one day and made a list of unsustainable things that a company might do, such as ignoring the practices of its suppliers or turning a blind eye when accidents occur at its plants.”

The motivation for writing the article is that representatives of companies often boast about their sustainability efforts but rarely bring up the obstacles that they have run into – such as difficulty collaborating effectively with suppliers or protecting health and safety on the shop floor.

“Everybody faces similar challenges,” Dr Eriksson says, “and we’re not going to get anywhere unless people lower their guard and speak out. If only more members of the business community paid attention to these issues and started talking about them, the goal of improving sustainability efforts and encouraging a sense of responsibility would be a lot more achievable.”

Easier to be sloppy when nobody is looking over your shoulder

In addition to delving into theories about ways for businesses to assume responsibility and contribute to a healthier planet, Dr Eriksson is curious about why individual consumers behave as they do – not only out in the world but at home as well. He and Kamran Rousta, who also conducts research at the University of Borås, are examining the relationship of ethical responsibility and separation at source. What determines whether a person separates household waste or not? And what are the repercussions for the subsequent fate of waste products?

“Our conviction is that people who truly understand why waste needs to be separated will climb on board,” Dr Eriksson says. “But when everything ends up in one big container, nobody knows what you did or didn’t do, so the motivation to act responsibly diminishes. One hypothesis is that it’s easier to forget what you know is right when there is little risk of getting caught. What I want to find out is where the tipping point is between understanding the benefits of protecting the environment and taking the easy way out when nobody can see you. These kinds of psychological questions are endlessly fascinating.”

Difference between understanding and feeling it in your bones

Dr Eriksson waxes eloquent about all the ideas he has for future research. He already has 20 articles in mind that are competing for his attention. One article would explore ways for businesses to improve their sustainability efforts at various levels. Or how logistics research can take better advantage of psychological theories concerning human strategies for evading responsibility. Or simply why research is conducted and what it is good for.

“Sustainability in its various guises is what fuels my research,” Dr Eriksson says. “There is no shortage of awareness that sustainability is vital to perpetuating life on a planet that has finite resources, but absorbing that truth emotionally and acting accordingly is another story.” Why are some people ready to proceed on the basis of what they know while others aren’t?”

Maybe it has to do with the difference between understanding something and feeling it in your bones. And the fact that evolution has not favoured those who are equipped to consider the welfare of people on the other side of the earth and future generations.

Dr Eriksson would love to get to the bottom of it all.

“I am a sceptic and I want to learn how things tick,” he says. “Paradoxically, the more you get to know about a subject, the more complex you realise that it is. Three years ago I thought I knew the ins and outs of sustainability. These days, however, I wonder occasionally whether I have the slightest notion.”


Text and photography: Lena M. Fredriksson