Monday, 8 February 2010

Davos and the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’

Joost Martens, CI Director General, challenges ‘the Prisoner’s Dilemma’ at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos.

Sustainable consumption was high on the agenda of the World Economic Forum this year, with at least five sessions dedicated directly or indirectly to the topic. Titles included Who is the new consumer? and Redesigning consumption patterns. While it was recognised that governments and industry have major roles to play, the main questions were about consumers: ‘Can they be informed and inspired, and indeed empowered to change behaviour towards more sustainable consumption?’

In that context, the Prisoner's Dilemma is sometimes used – and was also raised in Davos – to explain why consumers will or can not easily make efforts to consume sustainable (or green, or fair trade, or ethical) products and services. I don’t believe that today’s consumer behaviour can be interpreted through the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and will explain why.

The Prisoner's Dilemma is…
…a short parable about two prisoners who are split up and each offered a chance to inform on each other, for which the informer would receive a lighter sentence and the informed would receive a harsher sentence. The problem is that both can play this game – ie backstab – and if both do, then fair worse than they would had they both kept silent.

There are two basic aspects that characterise the situation of the prisoners. One assumption is that they are not in communication with each other (both sit separated from the other in cells). In terms of consumption behaviour, this can be translated into not knowing what the other consumers are doing – not being in communication with each other – and assuming that one’s actions won’t make a difference, and therefore choosing the easiest, cheapest or most available options – thus pursuing their self-interest and not the common interest, of a sustainable future for the planet.

But this is less and less true: TV, mobile phones, the Internet and social networks make it possible to be in almost constant and perfect communication, and to know what other people are thinking, doing, and valuing.

The other assumption is that they both pursue their self-interest and not the potential common interest. I do not believe consumers see themselves in this light. The results from a consumer survey in Brazil, presented during the Forum, showed that many consumers wish to be more active in society and do take sustainability issues into account in their purchasing decisions; will or won’t trust (and are prepared to reward or punish) industry for providing sustainable products and services; and assume their responsibilities and understand their role as a political role. In other words, they don’t see themselves as shoppers, but as citizens, as consumer/citizens. To change consumer behaviour, and thus for consumers at large to act, we need to engage them.

Continue reading the next post from Joost Martens post-Davos.

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