The Paradox of Freedom of Choice
The Concept of Choice for Freedom
by Peter Malaise
This text is a summarised excerpt from a book Peter is actually writing. Reproduction in extenso, or of quotes, is free of charge for non-commercial use, as far as the content and the wording are unchanged and the source is fully mentioned.
US psychologist Barry Schwarz wrote a book on the Paradox of Choice, gives lectures on the subject and at least one of these can be found on YouTube. In the latter he criticises this paradox with some mindblowing examples, such as the fact that in his local supermarket one can buy 157 different salad dressings.
What he fails to do however, is to place this type of consumerism behaviour – which is happily orchestrated by the largest part of industry – in a larger frame. He stresses the fact that it is up to the consumer to take his or her responsability and make the right choices. He doesn’t make clear though how the consumer should do this, on the basis of which paradigm and with which tools. And on top of it: why should do it all?
When we look at the flow scheme of a decision to consume something, we can discern three distinct phases:
something is triggering our desire to satisfy a certain need and we start searching for a solution – a product or a service
we obtain the product or service and satisfy our need, at least for a given time
the inevitable leftovers of the solution (product or service) are discarded
It is not possible to make a qualitative evaluation of this process and its components without placing the individual in the middle of the action. He is the only one who can judge about the need and the way this should be satisfied.. He can accept what is offered in the economic life as a product or a service, but he is not forced to do so. If the product or service is not really satisfying, but fakes some kind of satisfaction, or even worse, when either of them try to bind him in a loop of repeated consumption, he can decide to look out for another supplier of product or service.
Standing in the middle one of the three phases, the consumer has – or should acquire – a conscient perception of the (first) solution phase and the (third) discarding phase. As the satisfaction of the need could be faked, he has to base his qualitative evaluations on the elements he can discern in the generation phase of the solution. Inevitably, this generation phase will have an impact on the common sources for matter and energy, sources we share with close to seven billion human beings. Projections show that this number could easily double or triple in a foreseeable future, which fact makes a consistent dealing with these sources to a necessity: already today there is a net shortage in some raw materials, food and non-food likewise.
The discarding phase is totally dependent on the choices which have been made in the two former phases. When a product or service is generating a volume of waste, or consuming and amount of energy which are high in relation to a single unit of product or service, or when material to be discarded demands a supplementary input of matter or energy to be reabsorbed in the biocycle of the planet, there is a clear disadvantage for all stakeholders in the process. Products will be more expensive and any of their footprints (carbon, water, eco-footprint) will be larger. This will have an impact in any country and in any continent of the planet. The critical situation of the biocapacity of this planet and the weakening of the human fertility and immunity are clearly flagging the dangers we have in front of us. We just have to consider Overshoot Day as an example: that is the day in the current year on which we have consumed the whole biocapacity of the planet.. This year (2010), Overshoot Day fell on September 23d, making that we will have consumed 1,4 planets on December 31st. For your information: there is only 1,0 planet. And Overshoot Day tends to come six to seven days earlier every year, even in this year of so-called economical crisis.
Some more Concepts
Two concepts have emerged in the past decades: Sustainable Development and Stakeholdership. They can help industry to better organise their reaction on the changes that are required; but we will see further on that it is not enough to show a reactive behaviour, a strong proactive management is an absolute necessity. That means that, whereas up to now decision making was based on experiences from the past, it will become a bare necessity to start learning how to base decisions on questions from the future. This is a completely new challenge for which the toolkits and the structures have to be developed. Companies which fail to engage in this development will have no chance of survival whatsoever.
Sustainability – with its social, economical and ecological articulations – is mainly axed on organisational structures and flows. How can we secure that the Commonwealth of Planet Earth is functioning adaquately, equitably and with minimal impact? Stakeholdership is at the same time hidden within sustainability and a concept on its own. It has, far more than sustainability, to be tailored to the needs of the individual company or organisation. Stakeholdership can secure that all parties that should be involved in the creation and production of goods and services, are involved indeed.
What is missing in the global approach is the answer on the question Barry Schwartz left unanswered: why should we do all this? I think there is an unanswered need for an ethical approach of what we know as ‘the consumer’. ‘The consumer’ is an undefined species without an identity, without a personality. He is more or less tolerated as a necessary evil. He has to be questioned, averaged, put into statistics and classified. Which makes him look like a somewhat improved type of cattle…
And where we speak of mankind, we should not forget that this is constituted of nearly seven billion absolutely individual personalities. Every single one of them is unique and has the basic right on recognition of this uniqueness. No religion, no political system, no philosophical approach can claim the right to wipe out or in other ways jeopardise this uniqueness.
This implicates that each individual has a basic right on freedom – which, as a matter of fact, has its boundaries there, where the freedom of another human being is met. Up to now, a Concept of Choice for Freedom has, as far as I know, never been accepted, let be be introduced in economical processes. In spite of that, it is a basic requirement to make the concepts of sustainability and stakeholdership work at all.. How will free human beings find their place in these concepts?
Even with real front-runners amidst businesses which offer products or services in a context of stakeholdership, it is rare to find some who really see the free human being as a a full scale partner. The reason is twofold: next to the obvious fact that Choice for Freedom is not yet an accepted concept, the average organisational structure of actual companies – when not of the whole of business – simply doesn’t allow to take free consumers on board as full partners.
A further complicating element is, that the actual consumer organisations suffer from the same misconceived consumer statute: they do not really represent their consumers, in the best of cases they come with standpoints to which most consumers do not seem to oppose. But that is not what is meant with the Concept of Choice for Freedom.
Things become probably clearer when we turn to sustainable development. Most of us know by now that this issue is no PR anymore, nor window dressing. It was quite rapidly accepted as a bare future necessity, as a tool to make businesses, products and services future capable. There is a rapidly growing understanding that considering economical, ecological and social issues at the same time and at an equal level of importance, is a basic requirement for any product or service. But how would anyone do that without an adequate representation of free consumers? To me, ‘adequate’ doesn’t mean that they are just present, or just questioned or averaged, but that they are an inextricable part of the solution.
Therefore, businesses must strive towards co-generating sustainable consumption. As with all changes, this will in the early stages be a time-consuming and somewhat costly process. It will give them the reward, however, that several of their other stakeholders (suppliers, shareholders, bankers, employees) are desperately seeking for: stability and security.
The natural partners for co-generating sustainable consumption are the Non-Governemental Organisations (NGO’s). A prerequisite however is that they themselves also will have to take on board the free consumers as partners. It might very well be that, as an example, an environmentally oriented NGO has standpoints which a fair part of their adherents cannot follow – or not yet. In such a case (and this can be replicated for any type of organisation), the NGO should refrain from stubbornly forcing the point through the ranks – which I have experienced more than once. I call this behaviour eco-fundamentalism or socio-fundamentalism.
On the practical side, let it be obvious that for a company, to have an active dialogue with one million customers at the same time is quite a challenge. I’m convinced though that this will not really be a concern, especially not with the modern communication media. A kind of referendum with free consumers, that has a binding character, can easily be organised over the internet and will help the company and give it guidance in its decision processes on products and services. But again: it might be the outcome that a product will not be accepted in that form and this is a learning curve for the company.
To summarise the approach: the Paradox of Freedom of Choice is as a matter of fact a self-inflicted ailment of consumerism, which is at the moment slowly killing the planet and all its inhabitants.
The medicine for this ailment is neither some or other new marketing trick, nor a new religion, nor automatically implementable new ethics – none of them will function – but a reshuffling of responsibilities and partnerships which I call the Concept of Choice for Freedom. Inextricably linked with this concept are two further ones: Sustainable Development and Stakeholdership.
Instead of forging strategic partnerships with fellow companies only, providers of products and services should forge strategic alliances in which free consumers are a full partner. Next to the so needed stability and security, it would give them a formidable credibility and trust – also when talking to bankers.