Last Sunday, my wife and I enjoyed a pot of delicious organic, fair trade certified tea as we read the Sunday newspaper. The on-going story of the fires in the Amazon rainforest captured my attention and I worried about the big, accelerating factors that drive climate change. As I enjoyed my tea, I wondered whether – organic or not – we were like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Our organic tea would never offset the Amazon’s destruction. Or did we hold the solution in our hands?
As the Amazon fires have given media another angle to communicate the enormity of climate change, I’ve begun noticing stories that question the impact of individual lifestyle choices and purchasing preferences on the crisis we face. They say that the consumption choices we make for ourselves and our families won’t solve the climate problem, that our choice of organic/fair trade tea is irrelevant. They say we are feeling good about a meaningless act.
I find this troubling. While I can’t judge the climate science, I have plenty of experience with consumers adopting new products – and solid, reproducible evidence for my alternative (complementary?) point of view.
Our personal choices are necessary, but not sufficient, factors in shaping a sustainable future. One choice won’t do it, or a hundred, or a thousand. But one choice is much more impactful than it seems.
Here’s how I know:
1. One choice multiplies
When someone chooses to make one change in consumption – eating less meat or buying clean energy – their awareness of their personal impact grows. This awareness leads to further changes in their behavior. We have in-market test results at Sustainable Business Partners proving conclusively that someone who has purchased clean energy will respond at a very high rate (many times average) to ads for organic tea, sustainable fashion, and natural cosmetics … and vice versa.
- Conclusion: Changing a single consumer practice or brand preference has a larger impact as it multiplies across products and categories in someone’s shopping basket.
2. One consumer becomes many
The solar energy industry has proven that someone who lives near a home with recently installed solar panels is much more likely to buy a solar power system. Likewise, a choice to eat less meat, to buy Worn Wear (“pre-owned” clothing) from Patagonia or a plug-in hybrid – despite the apparent sacrifices involved – will encourage more people to make similar choices. And if you consider the power of compounding, one person influencing just three others becomes nine (3×3), then 27 (3x3x3), then 81 (3x3x3x3), and so on.
- Conclusion: One person’s choice can have an outsized impact, as many others are influenced, directly or indirectly, to make a similar choice.
3. A small change can be a tipping point
Studies of the “diffusion of innovation” show that new products depend on a small number of “innovators” to gain an early foothold in their market. If it creates real value for its customers, that product may then go on to gain acceptance by a broader group of “early adopters.” But even at this level, many products don’t reach the mainstream market. This is where they hit the barrier known as the tipping point. Products that don’t get past this point either fade away or stagnate as niche products. Those that pass the tipping point, however, see their sales take off.
The tipping point for any particular product will differ, based on many factors, but it need not be large. Check the container of almost any soft drink and you’re likely to find that it is certified Kosher. Jews represent only about 2% of the U.S. population, and only a fraction of them keep Kosher, so why is it almost impossible to buy non-Kosher Coke (except when Passover changes the rules)? This tipping point is on the producer side of the equation, rather than the consumer side. It’s simply more economical for Coke and its competitors to make a single product line, all certified Kosher, than it is to maintain separate production, marketing, and distribution channels for Kosher consumers.
This point will also come for organic cotton and electric vehicles and organic household products.
- Conclusion: We don’t need all, or even most, consumers to choose sustainable products in order to surge past the tipping point.
4. We are adding new tools to our toolkit
Project Drawdown was created to gather and synthesize everything we know about the actions we can take to reverse global warming. The result (documented in the book, Drawdown) is an impressive toolkit of climate-regeneration strategies. It includes some surprises, such as the powerful impact of educating girls and of reducing meat consumption. Most important, though, the simple act of compiling knowledge that was known, but buried in scattered, highly specialized scientific literature, was enormously valuable.
Drawdown is just one example. It’s been said that, “When we adopt new technology, we do old things in new ways [for example, switch to organic farming methods]. When we internalize new technology, we find new things to do [for example, invent cradle-to-cradle processes].”* Knowledge begets knowledge, and it compounds at an accelerating rate. Our climate-regeneration toolkit is just starting to expand.
- Conclusion: A sustainable mindset will multiply the solutions we can bring to this challenge.
5. The compound effect of these actions is impactful
A person’s single choice becomes many across their whole shopping basket. Then a single person becomes many. Then an increasing number of sustainable products pass their tipping point, developing a self-perpetuating momentum. This chain of compounding factors is what smart marketers at environmentally conscious companies try to spark (and what we at Sustainable Business Partners develop digital tools to enable).
I know that irreversible climate change takes place every day. Some of it can never be reversed or repaired. I can’t help that. What I can do is drink organic/fair trade tea, avoid single-use plastics, buy clean energy at home, and so on. As the ripple effects of these choices compound, I expect them to make a difference.
In the end, even though our choice of organic tea won’t stop the Amazon fires or climate change, that choice still matters. It’s like a snowflake falling on a snow-covered mountain. One snowflake, a hundred, or even many thousands may have no impact. But if it keeps snowing, eventually one insignificant flake will cause an avalanche, unleashing the potential stored up in all the previous snowflakes that fell on that mountain. And that will have a measurable, maybe even historical, impact.
What’s the evidence for this heart-warming tale? All of human history. So many social, political, technological, and economic changes have followed this pattern. And we have measured in-market results that validate it.
Another cup of tea? Yes, please!Even though choosing #organic tea won’t stop #climatechange, it still matters. Enough snowflakes together create a powerful avalanche. Click To Tweet