Group Insight & Research

February 26, 2020

The ‘consumer’​ and climate change

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“I think we may have passed the point of no return. Regardless of what we do there are going to be catastrophic effects due to climate change”.

This is a comment from a participant in our recent research on climate change. It is a difficult sentiment to grapple with. This sort of negativity is off-putting, it’s depressing. But we must understand the fear and the growing sense of hopelessness we see people exhibiting to work out how best to engage with them. Companies need their ‘consumers’ to want to make positive changes, and to feel confident in making those changes.

I put inverted commas around the word ‘consumer’ intentionally – for we are seeing growing push-back against the very idea of consumerism as a basis for our way of living, from rejections of Black Friday to growing demands for companies to provide products that last longer and which can be repaired.

We know that there is governmental pressure in the UK as in many other countries- which will only grow – and we know that corporate agendas regarding climate goals are shifting rapidly. There is growing investor pressure. And companies that don’t move quickly enough could easily find themselves scrambling to get on top of new benchmarks and restrictions.

But we will fail if we don’t bring the people who buy our products and services along with us. If they feel trapped in anxiety (which is fundamentally passive) or distrust our claims and promises.

With this in mind, we embarked on our research to explore changing sentiment towards climate change amongst the general public. We’ve been discussing this topic heavily in a range of our client projects, and discovered that people across many walks of life are starting to challenge companies to ask themselves some fundamental questions. What are they here for? What is their contribution to the world today? And what is their legacy for tomorrow? For all our tomorrows.

It appeared to be the case through our client work (in diverse sectors, such as healthcare, technology and FMCG) that concern about the climate emergency was no longer the domain of an educated elite but becoming more widespread. We have found ourselves discussing on many occasions that 2019 seemed to represent a shift in understanding of the gravity of the situation, and the need for urgent action to address it.

But it’s also clear that there is a gap between feeling and action. It’s a truism that there is a say-do gap in many aspects of how we live: we say one thing and do another, sometimes without realising it. Or we say we want something but then don’t follow through on it. For a range of reasons.

We know that people aren’t necessarily dramatically shifting their behaviours yet (e.g. reducing plastics consumption, offsetting carbon emissions, driving less), and that’s often not a sign of apathy at all. In many cases it’s simply because it’s too damn hard to work out what to do, and what not to do. Sometimes there’s a lack of carrot, sometimes a lack of stick. Greener choices are often simply not widely available or are priced out of reach.

We also suspected from our exploration of sustainability issues that cynicism would represent a barrier to action. That is to say – why should I believe what companies tell me? And can I really be confident enough in what they state to inconvenience myself and possibly pay more?

But it’s crucial we understand what people say they want now, even if the evidence of behaviour change is not there yet. There will be a lag, but those desires will become their demands before long.

The cynicism we anticipated was clearly there in our research (a survey amongst nationally representative samples of 2750 people across the UK and Ireland).

Only 24% express positive sentiments that their government is doing enough to tackle climate change. More damningly, only 17% express positive sentiment that companies are doing enough. Equally, only 17% claim that they trust what companies tell them about their climate change initiatives.

And concern is widespread: 72% agree or strongly agree that climate change is an urgent issue. 89% of UK and Irish respondents think we will see the negative effects of climate change in their own countries, while 42% believe that we are seeing the effects already.

And this is more tangible than vague worry: a majority of people expressed concern about climate change destabilising our economies, and creating threats to our physical and mental wellbeing.

Analytics of changing language and underlying sentiment from a wide range of online sources with our partner agency Relative Insight highlights a significant increase over the past three years in expressions of panic and urgency in how people are talking about climate change in public forums such as social media websites.

Yet it’s simply too hard to make confident decisions: 63% cite there being conflicting information inhibiting their confidence in making more sustainable choices, while 62% noted that while the will to make lifestyle changes is there, they sometimes found it hard to know what to do.  Online analytics of social media language again with Relative Insight and of search language with our partner Canopy indicate massive increases in discussion and search on keywords such as ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘brand ethics’, but clearly we’re finding it hard to make confident choices, even if the will is there.

We’re currently seeing some dramatic corporate commitments to becoming carbon neutral or carbon positive. And undoubtedly this systemic change is needed if we are to have any hope of getting our ever-exacerbating situation better under control.

But systemic change sits at one level, and engaging the population sits at another. In parallel with addressing operational issues such as supply chain environmental credentials, we need to work much harder to create more sustainable solutions for people, and to make those desirable, and accessible practically and financially.

We need to bring people on a journey with us – recognising the scale of the challenge, but working together to navigate the threats and disruptions to come. Crucially, we must give people hope -we must turn their passive fear and panic into positive action.

This is not easy. There are no right answers. We are all working it out as we go along. We will make mis-steps, but we must try. There is no other way.

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