Science - June 3, 2004

‘Consumer and citizen are not the same’

You may not be aware of it, but inside you there are two entities, a consumer and a citizen. And though they are housed in one body, they act as different beings. The consumer simply buys the cheapest things in the supermarket; the citizen is concerned about the damage done to the environment or society while producing these goods. The distinction between the two should be carefully maintained according to sustainability expert Chris Dutilh of the multinational Unilever, who spoke to an audience of animal scientists at Zodiac last Tuesday.

When Unilever introduced a new product, a plastic bottle with liquid margarine instead of solid margarine, it received two prizes. The first was from an environmental organisation which awarded Unilever a prize for the most ugly product, condemning the company for producing wasteful plastic products. The second prize was from the retailers, honouring Unilever for having made the best selling innovation. It shows that citizens and consumers should not be regarded as the same, Chris Dutilh says. While consumers bought the plastic bottles en masse, citizens condemned them. And the latter are important to the company, stressed Dutilh. Environmentally concerned citizens will tell friends, who up to then have been loyal customers, not to buy the bottle. Employees won’t want to work for a dirty company. But above all, Dutilh says, the employees and citizens want to be proud of the company.

These are rather emotional considerations, but that’s exactly Dutilh’s point. For too long companies and scientists have tried to understand citizens’ behaviour in a rational, what he calls masculine way. Consumer behaviour can indeed be measured, calculated and predicted, but citizens’ behaviour is less rational. The masculine way in which citizens’ concerns are still dealt with is the cause of many problems of unsustainability, he says. Dutilh therefore argues for a clear distinction to be made between the consumer and the citizen. Consumers want their material needs fulfilled. They want the cheapest product, and safe, tasty and healthy food. Citizens on the other hand want their emotional needs fulfilled. They want to have a good feeling about their work, their environment and about the company they buy products from. Citizens are thus concerned about the way animals are kept, about the environment and about waste.

Some argue that consumer and citizen should come together so that consumers will buy more sustainable products, but Dutilh doesn’t agree. “Look at it as a coin. On a ten-euro cent coin, we all see on one side that it is worth ten euro cents. That is a value that means the same to all of us. On the other side we see the head of Queen Beatrix, which symbolises the Netherlands. We all have different feelings about this country, and these feelings change continuously. So it is with consumers and citizens. We all have a material and an emotional side. They shouldn’t come together, for then the coin would vanish.’’

Joris Tielens

Re:act