Sustaining sustainability through relational values: framing consumers as agents of change by Master's of Environmental Sustainability student Isha Mistry

Posted on Thursday, May 2, 2019

Blog Post

This blog is in reaction to a lecture given by UBC’s Dr. Kai Chan on “Tapping into what matter: Relational values and policy mixes for sustainability”. Dr. Chan is affiliated with UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and is a visiting professor at uOttawa working towards mainstreaming biodiversity and sustainability in decision-making within the public and private sector. As a Master’s in Environmental Sustainability student, I had the pleasure of introducing Dr. Chan’s lecture highlighting the importance of using relational values in decision-making.

Institute of the Environment

Isha Mistry, Master's of Environmental Sustainability, introducing UBC’s Dr. Kai Chan at a special lecture “Tapping into what matter: Relational values and policy mixes for sustainability” on February 7, 2019

Most solutions to addressing the wicked problems related to sustainability have been “band-aid” solutions that do not take a broader systems perspective in order to create effective environmental change. Policymakers and researchers often make assumptions about what motivates people, and the interventions that are necessary to guide them in to making more sustainable choices. Our current economic system is designed to favour instrumental values or unsuccessfully attempts to appeal to intrinsic values through political and legal instruments. The resulting solutions, thus far, have been siloed and do not consider that many people derive their identities from their positive relationships with nature.

As a result, we need to intentionally foster the relational values that promote stewardship and shared responsibility.

Traditional environmental philosophy deals with two categories of environmental values: intrinsic and instrumental. These values are usually dichotomized as either environmentalists wanting to preserve the environment for nature's sake because it has intrinsic value, or corporate entities who want to do the same but for humans' sake. These two views are irreconcilable without talking about relational values.

The concept of relational values, championed by Dr. Chan, addresses this fundamental missing piece from sustainability solutions. Relational values reflect consumer preferences, principles and virtues associated with relationships in the choices they make to lead to a good life. If consumers made choices that reflect their values and appeal to their identities as responsible stewards, environmental degradation could be reduced. However, current market and governance structures do not provide these choices to consumers.

Mainstream market solutions (e.g. green certifications) may provide the destination, but the journey is left to individuals who have minimal guidance in who to make choices that lead to desirable futures. If we want to create systematic change that moves towards untangling these wicked problems, we need to question how relational values are being accounted for in the sustainability equation. For example, carbon pricing is a blanket market solution that does not account for the different values of people and divides, rather than unites consumers. While it is a disincentive to emit carbon, it does not introduce meaning in consumer’s lives based on their preferences, principles and virtues, which would result in stronger human-environment relationships and further motivate consumer efforts toward conservation.

Factoring in relational values can create innovative solutions that consumers are willing to pay for. For example, Dr. Chan’s initiative to create a “supply chain of virtue” provides consumers with the choice to pay for companies to reduce their environmental impacts when buying products that cause environmental harm in their production. Acknowledging consumers as agents of change rather than an additional zero on the bottom line, can radically transform market solutions to sustainability.

Ultimately, we must create conditions where individuals can trust that businesses and institutions are taking steps to effectively address environmental concerns in a manner that appeals to relational values and benefits the bottom line, while sustaining our way of life for future generations.



By Isha Mistry - Master’s in Environmental Sustainability student at the Institute of the Environment.

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