Consumers are people, too

This blog isn’t about sustainability. It’s about decision-making – and especially framing. But I need to quickly explain something first. My background in sustainability makes me alert to issues around consumption. Why? Because the resource use required for the levels of consumption we have is literally unsustainable if humans are to carry on thriving. And also because increased consumption goes hand-in-hand with a host of problems including inequality, crime and mental illness, as our lives become ever more about the status that consumption signifies.

So it’s no surprise that I have a problem with the frequency with which people are described as ‘consumers’, rather than as residents, citizens or, erm, “people”. It happens a lot, and it annoys me, because there is so much more to us than what we buy and use.

I think we can now see a demonstrable problem with the way the word (and concept) frames debate and decision making. This might interest you even if you don’t give a monkeys about resource use or wellbeing. Its’ from the recent Government strategy on ultra low emission vehicles (which doesn’t include bicycles, I should point out). This screengrab on developing the market is telling, I think.

1.54 of ULEVS

Note how people are referred to as consumers; in the Strategy, this happens nearly as often as people referred to as ‘drivers’. Is it possible that this is affecting the way policy is framed? When we have a decision-making class that has unquestioningly pursued GDP growth for decades, this framing makes a positive outcome more likely. “Consumers” consume; and when you’re chasing growth, this is good.

The commitment made in this strategy is considerable: £500m six years infrastructural investment, from 2015-2020, and an office has been established at DfT dealing solely with low-emission vehicles. Cyclists (and potential cyclists, which is the vast majority of people), however, get a much poorer deal from decision-makers, who never refer to them, in the act of travelling, as consumers (the Government’s recent policy document on cycling doesn’t use the word once). So it’s no surprise that, even though this was seen by Government as something to trumpet, cycling is receiving a (imho) laughably small investment of £148m (some of which is local funding) – with no commitment beyond two years, despite the existing legacy of next to no investment.

This matters, because active travel (walking and cycling) offers an major benefit to the economy and to public health. It would address many of the UK’s deep-seated problems. But it remains marginalised in policy terms, blighted by poor design and assumptions about the primacy of motorised vehicles. The result is that cycling is not easy or normal; despite the hype, there is no cycling boom.

I don’t suppose we’d ever be able to run a real-world experiment where policy discussions are restricted to referring to individuals as ‘people’, extended to ‘people who … [cycle/drive/ buy things, etc]. If we could, the outcomes would be interesting. In the meantime, if you want to influence decision-makers, keep talking about consumers.

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