Need to make it easier to reach for the medium hanging fruit

Posted on June 23, 2007

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Major climate change report released today by the UK and UK Consumer organisations. Here’s my take.

1. People are aware of the problem

Climate change is a mainstream consumer issue. Consumers in the US and UK are strongly concerned about global warming, and are ready to take action. Sixty six percent of consumers in the US and UK agreed that everyone needs to take responsibility for their personal contribution to global warming.

2. and the low hanging fruit is picked

The majority of consumers have already made some easy, close-to-home changes such as reducing energy consumption at home (57.9%, US & UK combined) and buying energy efficient light bulbs (47.9%, US & UK combined) or appliances (33.5%, US & UK combined)…

3. and this is good.

Small steps add up” has been the motto of consumer mobilization around climate change. The hope being that if systems can be developed to inform, engage and enable concerned consumers they will be able to be scaled up for wider adoption, and deepened to create more significant impacts. This strategy has been effective in breaking the cycle of inertia and creating a groundswell of individual and business action, by leading companies, start-up enterprises and concerned consumers. It has also been able to mobilize, albeit in a fragmented way, investors, business leaders, marketers, entrepreneurs, technologists and civil society organizations to begin focusing on possible practical solutions, products and markets which may lead the way towards de-carbonized economies.

4. But we know it isn’t enough

Seventy five percent of citizens are found in the group with high concern about global warming, but low levels of action; while only a minority are the classical ethical consumers’: informed, motivated and enabled to take action.

5. which means the bulk of us aren’t doing enough

…but very few have translated this into broader purchasing choices, or more difficult behavioral changes, and few plan to do so over the next 6 months.

…while consumer mobilization approaches may use strategies of building up from small changes to larger ones, there is also the danger of consumer mobilization getting stuck on small totemic actions such as switching to low energy light bulbs only, without being able to shift on to other material lifestyle changes such as transport choices.

6. which will result in burn out (of consumers and media – then the earth!), or wide uptake but with little effect, or too little too late

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7. All of which are bad.

Today there is global recognition that unsustainable patterns of consumption are leading to extremely serious social and environmental impacts. Irresponsible consumption is putting a catastrophic strain on the environment, contributing to climate change, destroying the ecosystem and undermining sustainable development.

8. More low hanging fruit isn’t the solution

However, in the context of the current patterns of consumer action and the urgency and scale of change needed, there is a clear danger that the explosion of consumer facing initiatives will fall short in achieving significant impacts.

9. so we need to find a way to lift us to the next level of fruit

Our aim then is not to encourage people to act on climate change as strongly motivated individuals, but as strongly assured communities in which greener choices have become the default.

10. unfortunately we don’t know what that medium height fruit is (especially the Americans)

There are not many who are completely unwilling to embrace a more climate conscious lifestyle, but a large proportion of people who are concerned about climate change do not feel motivated or empowered to take action. Only 42% of US consumers as compared to 76% of UK consumers were able to name a specific important action they could take.

11. and we don’t trust companies to tell us what is best

But consumers do not trust information from businesses on climate change. Government, business, the media and celebrities all feature low in the trust list too. Two thirds of respondents said that business needs to take global warming more seriously (combined 66.4%: US 63.2%, UK 69.5%); and a similar number said that governments should take greater action (combined 64.1%: US 59.4%, UK 68.6%).

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12. even though we want this information

Consumers want more information from businesses about how they are addressing the climate impacts of their products. Sixty percent of respondents in the US and UK want companies to provide more product-based information at the point of sale and half would rather do business with companies that are working to reduce their contribution to global warming.

13. which is going to take a transformation, and a fast moving shuttle approach.

Shuttle model from Consumers on climate changea pathway of progressively larger steps on each side of the mandatory-voluntary spectrum which ratchet up the response to climate change…

…such an approach seeks to create the conditions for synergies and collaboration, but without slowing down the process of innovation and engagement. If such a ‘shuttle system’ could be constructed from current fragmented developments, and if it could be made to cycle fast enough, it would drive the systemic and disruptive change needed over the next decade to step back from the brink of catastrophic climate change.

14. or in other words, an integrated, multipronged approach, all with consumers at the centre.

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15. for example

Developing rigorous and transparent standards through accountable processes of multi-sector engagement and on the basis of scientific consensus which offer consumers a trusted basis on which to make product and lifestyle choices to manage their overall carbon footprint.

  • Connecting with consumers using the full armory of tools and insights from branding, psychology, communications and social marketing to engage with them effectively.
  • Helping consumers make cuts that count by assisting them in identifying the really material changes they could make.
  • Reassuring consumers that their actions matter, by connecting individual consumption choices to wider culture change, recruiting consumers to support valid and transparent whole company approaches, driving innovation, and supporting calls for progressive and smart regulation.

16 . A coherent message is important (which preempts my usual complaint about people focusing on single issues)

One key challenge for businesses, standards setters and labeling initiatives is to bring together different issues of social and environmental responsibility into a coherent single message. Those involved in marketing ‘green products’ have found that emissions reductions on a human scale and related to other sustainable development issues are more attractive to consumers. This is seen in the positive synergies between environment and social goals in marketing development focused offset projects so that they are not torn between reducing their climate change impact and penalizing workers in poor countries. This is supported by a recent media backlash and accusations of hypocrisy leveled at high profile green initiatives for not following fairtrade principles too.

…a one planet lifestyle approach

15.  and sometimes that message is about complex systems, but we shouldn’t shy away from this

Effective assurance to mobilize consumers therefore requires not only a rigorous method to account for emissions and an accessible way to communicate this, but also a way to relate this to the scale and urgency of change needed including:

  • an overall agreed target, cap or right to carbon for the safe level of personal emissions and a way to relate individual dilemmas and choices to this overall budget.
  • Products and services that enable individuals to realistically, comfortably and aspirationally to live within this level of emissions.
  • A whole system approach that ensures that emissions savings made in one place are not just shifted around. Important to this is identifying and reducing emissions throughout the product’s lifecycle. This is particularly important for products which consume more energy in their usage than in production, such as motor vehicles and clothing.

Great report AccountAbility and the consumer groups, I’m glad we’ve got you on our planet.

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