Professor Balderjahn, familiarity with the term “sustainability” has significantly increased among German consumers over the past few years. In your view, what is the reason for this development?
This is indeed a positive development. In order to act sustainably, people have to know what sustainability is. The media’s role in more regularly informing the general public about serious ecological issues and social catastrophes has, without doubt, helped raise awareness of the concept of “sustainability”. To take just two examples: firstly, Germany witnessed two separate natural catastrophes within nine years of each other, which have both been described as the “flood of the century” – one in 2002 and the other 2013. Secondly, the tragic collapse of the nine-storey Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in 2013, which saw more than 1,000 people, mostly seamstresses who worked there, lose their lives. Events such as these mean that the population becomes more tuned in to non-sustainable conditions, not just with regard to the environment but also in areas such as social justice and health protection. In addition, I truly believe that debating issues related to sustainability is making a substantial contribution to raising awareness of the concept. These days, children often confront this subject from an early age in kindergarten, with schools and universities too playing an increasingly prominent role. Understanding sustainability is also a matter of education.
German citizens who have already encountered the term most often associate it with ecological aspects. Social issues such as thinking about the future for generations to come rarely appear in responses. Why do you think that is?
Issues concerning environmental protection were being discussed long before the term “sustainability” became part of the public debate. Roughly speaking, it wasn't until the start of the 21st century that German society first became familiar with the concept of sustainability, often using it as a new term for environmental protection. This helps to explain why ecological issues are still strongly connected with sustainability. From about 2008, the media also began to report more on critical social events (e.g. inhumane working conditions) instead of ecological aspects. However, many people do not immediately associate matters of social justice with sustainability, which is why it is rare for social issues to be cited when asking about sustainability. This too is a matter of education.
In your opinion, (how) will this increased interest in principles of sustainability affect consumer behavior in the future?
The importance of issues such as the conservation of natural resources and environmental and climate protection, as well as social justice, fluctuates over time. However, the long-term view is that the importance of sustainability is steadily increasing and we are now seeing that ever more people are willing to assume some degree of co-responsibility for environmental protection and social justice. This also affects their personal lifestyle and consumption behavior, where the trend is moving, slowly and cautiously, but nonetheless steadily, towards greater sustainability. However, this development is still in its early stages. At the moment, only a relatively small proportion of German consumers are prepared to pay more for organic and Fair Trade products or even to do without some consumer products completely. But I am sure that this figure will rise significantly in the future.
And what does this growing interest in principles of sustainability signal for manufacturers and retailers? Are they already equipped to appeal to sustainability-oriented customers?
It’s fair to say that they are probably not at this stage. It is tricky to say when manufacturers and retailers will be truly equipped to appeal to sustainability-oriented customer groups. However, some are on the right track. There are some good role models and pioneers among manufacturers in terms of sustainable management and product development, just as there are among retailers with regard to the spectrum of sustainable product ranges.. The impression I have is that retailers and manufacturers tend to more often react to pressure from sustainable customer groups, rather than try and proactively promote sustainable products overall and make them attractive for all of their customers. Unfortunately, as the demand pull for sustainable products is still very small, manufacturers and retailers are not falling over themselves to include these products in their ranges and special offers. The growing interest in sustainable principles among consumers will accelerate the shift towards greater sustainability on the manufacturing and retail side. I am sure of that.
I’ll end on a personal note: what does sustainability mean for you? Are there any areas which you believe are particularly important?
As an economist, I have to apply the principles of sustainability on both the supply and demand sides. From a company’ perspective, sustainable management means acting in a competitive environment in an environmentally friendly and socially-minded manner out of a sense of responsibility for future generations. On the demand side, sustainable consumption is about taking into consideration the ecological and social impact of our personal consumption on other people and on the environment, both when buying and using products. As an academic, the environment and climate protection are just as important to me as issues such as social justice, solidarity and human rights. However, since the responsible use of environmental resources has been studied extensively, from both a consumer and a business perspective, my work is currently more directed toward social aspects of sustainability. Additionally, I am interested in issues such as the voluntary reduction of consumption, for example by dispensing with some products entirely or sharing the use of products.
Thank you for your time!