How far does consumer freedom of choice extend? Should consumers be able to consume whatever they want, and in whatever quantity they want? Does the consumer always know best?

The answer is, probably not. The environmental impacts of overconsumption (consumption beyond basic needs) have been devastating. Canada may have a small population and lots of natural resources, but Canadians consume far too many resources per capita – we’re among the highest consumers of water, energy and other natural resources, with the 7th highest ecological footprint in the world. Canada emits more greenhouse gases per capita than almost any other country on earth. It has been estimated that if everyone on earth consumed at the same level as North Americans, we’d need at least another 4 planets worth of resources to support us. Clearly, in countries such as Canada especially, we need to reduce the resource-intensity of our lifestyles.

There has been some emphasis by government (e.g. the one-tonne challenge) and non-governmental organizations on the role of Canadians in reducing their environmental impact through lifestyle choices, such as choosing to cycle, walk or take public transit rather than drive. While important, these initiatives have not resulted in a perceptible decrease in Canadians’ collective environmental footprint.

It is critical to scale-up the production and consumption of more sustainable products to reduce the environmental impacts of our consumption patterns.When it comes to product choice, consumers can make more sustainable and ethical choices to some degree, but may be deterred by the often high price and unavailability of more sustainably-produced products. Part of the problem is the information gap – many consumers don’t realize the environmental impact of the products they buy, and which choices are better for the environment. But even if they did have this information, would it affect their buying decisions? According to research conducted by the UK government, information alone is not enough. Most consumer decisions are made on the basis of price, brand, and convenience, not environmental impact. If it is consumers that will drive change, a major shift in attitudes and values, and follow-through with actions, would be required. This raises important questions about the role of the producers and retailers of products and services, and of government, in shaping consumer choices.

Companies have always, either of their own accord or prompted by government, made continuous improvements to their product and service offering. Given the environmental footprint of consumption, there is now a push to have companies and governments play a greater role in influencing consumer choices, by “choice editing.” Choice editing, according to the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable, can be defined as pre-selecting the particular range of products and services available to consumers. The idea is, according to the Food Climate Research Network, that government and business should not wait for consumers to choose more 'green' products and services, and should instead support consumers in making more sustainable choices by removing options with a negative environmental profile.

Let’s take the example of the food sector. To choice edit, a food retailer would only stock more sustainable products, such as free range eggs, fair-trade bananas or Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) approved fish (i.e. the choice of buying regular eggs, bananas, and fish is edited out). Some companies, such as Marks and Spencer and Unilever, are already choice editing for sustainability. The CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, recently said “one of the most effective ways to change consumer buying habits is through choice editing.” Many choice edits are behind the scenes, with a change in ingredients (e.g. Wal-Mart’s commitment to sourcing organic cotton) or in processes, that results in an imperceptible change for consumers, but which can vastly reduce the environmental impact of products. There is also a move towards food labelling, where the environmental attributes of a product is displayed on the label. Tesco, a British retailer, has labelled the carbon emissions for more than 100 products. But should companies just go ahead and make the best choices for the environment, or present the consumer with different options and provide them with the information to make their own choice? Consumers may find environmental labelling hard to make sense of, or may ignore it altogether.

And the role of government? Governments can outright ban certain products, such as the incandescent light bulb or products that pose a health and safety risk, or they can use their taxing power to make certain products, like tobacco, less attractive.

Companies have always choice edited, meaning that they have always paid attention to certain product attributes. Governments have always had a role in influencing which products are available in the market, and under which conditions. Now sustainability factors should be added to the list of product attributes that should be considered by both companies and government when designing products and regulations, and deciding what to stock on store shelves.x

While choice editing will not solve all the problems associated with overconsumption on its own, it is an important component of companies (and perhaps governments) taking a more responsible approach to their role as major shapers of consumer buying habits.