Responsible consumption and the decision over Heathrow’s third runway

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and  International Business, University of Birmingham

I have a problem that I need to reconcile. This problem is the tension that exists between being a responsible consumer and being a responsible citizen. This tension should be central to all discussions regarding responsible business.

For me, this tension takes many forms. On 27 February, a Court of Appeal ruling declared that the decision to allow the expansion of Heathrow airport was unlawful on the grounds that the government had not taken into account the Paris climate agreement. The obvious follow-up to this ruling will be attempts to overturn any decisions to invest in national and local infrastructure. I would also suggest that this ruling should be applied to all housing developments and all planning applications; all investments in built space have environmental impacts. The result would be a dramatic negative impact on employment, economic activity and well-being. There lies the problem that I am as yet unable to reconcile; how is it possible to be a responsible consumer whilst supporting responsible business and responsible employment? There is an important set of trade-offs here to consider.

For Heathrow, I should first declare a conflict of interests. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) has invested in Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd (HAH) and I am a member of this scheme.

Let me return to my problem. For the Heathrow case, an illustrative example of the issues I am referring to is a photograph of a group of people standing outside the Court of Appeal with Friends of the Earth placards. From my personal perspective, I have major concerns with what I see in this image. A group of individuals who have engaged in unnecessary travel and unnecessary temporary consumption – the placards – that generates unnecessary carbon and environmental impacts. I assume that these individuals are not members of the legal team and that there was no necessity for these individuals to be outside the Court of Appeal.

My concerns with this photograph reflect the ways in which I currently reconcile the tension between responsible consumption and being a responsible citizen. As a responsible citizen, I should try to ensure that my consumption creates and sustains local employment whilst minimising negative impacts. One way to achieve this is to avoid unnecessary consumption. We still need to consume to live, but the question is what and how does one consume and with what impact? On the one hand, every decision to consume produces all kinds of environmental pollution – from particulates to carbon. On the other hand, every decision to consume, or not to consume, creates, sustains or destroys jobs or prevents jobs from being created. Thus, the group celebrating outside the Court of Appeal is, in part, celebrating their contribution to job destruction rather than creation. The counter argument is, of course, that alternative employment opportunities will emerge from this decision.

Perhaps the primary problem with the Court of Appeal case is that the Court is unable to adopt a holistic assessment. The Court is only able to consider the rather narrowly defined cases which are presented before it to consider. It is unable to engage in the extended analysis, discussions and trade-offs that are undertaken by our elected representatives. This raises the question of which institutions are best able to explore complex trade offs that sit behind every consumption decision made by individuals, firms and governments? The answer to this question must take two forms. First, every individual and business should take responsibility for their consumption and its wider impacts. Thus, avoid unnecessary consumption and try to minimise negative impacts. This raises another difficult question – what is necessary compared to unnecessary consumption? Second, in a democracy it is the role of elected representatives, of an elected government, to explore and try to reconcile trade-offs and to try to produce a balanced outcome regarding local and national investments of all sorts. This process of reconciliation is one involving complex trade-offs. The complexity of these trade-offs is reflected in the complexity of the parliamentary process.

Perhaps, the primary point to reflect upon is that investments made by businesses and governments respond to decisions made by individuals regarding their everyday consumption. Thus, everyone needs to consider the tensions between their lifestyle, consumer behaviour, environmental impacts and the contributions they make to supporting local employment. There is no easy solution to these tensions, but awareness is the first step towards some type of reconciliation.

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