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Learned: Sustainability and Consumers

11/18/09 5:55PM By Andrea Learned
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(HOST) Fresh from a Goddard College residency, commentator Andrea Learned is all fired up about Vermont as a leader in socially responsible business and educated consuming.

(LEARNED) "Sustainable businesses change consumers to customers through education."

This Paul Hawken quote inspired my recent decision to enroll in a Goddard College master’s program in socially responsible business.  After a twenty year career in traditional marketing, I wanted in on that vision!  And so, I am now gladly paying tuition, and will endure 24 months of solid reading, to convert my existing expertise into a career that will educate rather than sell.

Now, I know what you're thinking: selling stuff is selling stuff, no matter what; but here’s where I say we need to take responsibility as the consumers we are.  99.99% of us want that occasional latte or new sweater, even though we embrace the ideal of being less materialistic.  It is what it is. To me the point is to start on a path toward being more thoughtful about what and why we buy, and having socially responsible choices is key.  That’s where the education comes in.

What I've seen in my years of studying consumer behavior is that people generally like to feel "in the know."  They respond to the idea that they can make wise decisions with their money if they just pay a little extra attention and educate themselves.  These days companies are being forced to decide how to manage this new, more demanding consumer.  Will they hide behind the same old business practices, hoping no one looks behind the curtain?  Or will they invite prospective customers in to see what really goes on in operations and product manufacturing?

A fair number of companies in Vermont take that second route, and perhaps having so many friends who work for those businesses actually helped nudge me toward my master’s program.  It’s possible.  But, do you realize how lucky we are here to have this exposure to socially responsible ways of doing things?  The education that makes for globally savvy customers comes easy here!  In a way, communities that are exposed to so many socially responsible businesses have things to teach the rest of the country. We can be proud of our knowledge, and show our countrymen and women that it’s true: the more you know, the more companies will just have to deliver to meet higher expectations.

So, it boils down to empowerment.  Sustainable and socially responsible businesses are educating us in entirely new ways as we sort and learn and decide to purchase.  We can use that new-found information to buy somewhere else; but isn’t it human nature to reward the provider that informed you in the first place?

Many Vermont companies are adopting this new way of business and gambling that consumers will respond and thrive in their more educated buying ways.  One thing I've already learned in my Goddard studies is that in a sustainable business cycle there are closed loops.  Businesses don’t stop paying attention once their product is in a customer’s hands, and customers don’t wave goodbye once that product is bought.

Sustainable businesses change consumers to customers through education.

I'm beginning to believe that educated customers can change the world.
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