The environmental election pledges won’t work while we remain ‘consumers’

The environmental election pledges won’t work while we remain ‘consumers’

There are many indicators that businesses in the 2020s are going to be heavily pressured to demonstrate how sustainable / environmentally-friendly their processes and propositions are.

A sense of just how big a deal this area has become can be seen in the manifestos for the imminent election. Labour, Lib Dems and the Green Party have outlined very high-spending policies (usually referred to as the Green New Deal), to the tune of hundreds of billions, introducing a raft of measures to improve the UK’s environmental performance through the reduction of emissions.

The environment has tended to be regarded as a secondary political issue over the past decade or so. First of all the financial crash of 2007/08, then what to do about the Brexit referendum result, have been too dominant in the public discourse to allow it much room.

The consequence of this demotion, now that the environmental issue has a lot of momentum behind it again, is that many industries haven’t placed a sufficient level of focus on it to make meaningful, sustained progress. We have consumed more and more, quicker and quicker, without putting a great deal of thought into the potential environmental ramifications. Hence these emergency, massive spending pledges to counter the perceived impact of human activity on the climate.

Businesses and governments have been rather caught in the headlights of this renewed focus, with some quite extreme pressure on them to make huge environmental gains rapidly.

But are they well positioned to achieve that, realistically?

During the previous decade, when environmental issues were on the backburner, the focus for business propositions centred firmly around choice and convenience. This has created and embedded the idea that the end-customer – defined as a ‘consumer’ – shouldn’t have to lift a finger. They can just choose alternative offerings if there is any inconvenience in a solution they are accessing, with the guiding principle of competition forcing businesses to push standards of convenience ever-higher.

And this has developed a culture that is just not conducive to making the rapid environmental gains businesses are under such pressure to find.

Claims and reality

First, a word on the concept of ‘reality’ when it comes to climate change, as it is an incredibly complicated area. The forecasts and analysis are often based on a vast range of datasets, some of which are incomplete. To a large extent, as is often the case with statistical analysis, these outputs are based on ‘informed guesses’ rather than anything definitive.

Even so, most scientists today agree that climate change is happening, at least to some extent, and that human activity is playing some role in driving it. The disagreements are around what should be done to counter it, and how quickly. However, what constitutes actual ‘truth’ in this context is beside the point; the pressure on businesses and governments to do something, rapidly, is intense and unlikely to be dissipating anytime soon. That pressure is very real from their perspective.

This has led to all manner of environmental / sustainability-related claims suddenly turning up in business marketing.

In automotive, for example, there is much made of the ‘green revolution’ being made possible by electric vehicles, even though in reality the nationwide charging network necessary for these vehicles to move doesn’t yet exist. Or in retail, where any claims of improving performance are often specific to one area of their activities and therefore mask the overall complexity of the footprint, inherent to retail, of moving minerals and products backwards and forwards through a global supply chain.

The simple fact of the matter is that previously there was little pressure for industries to place a strong focus on environmental issues; now that pressure is great. And the miracle salves – such as finding preservative replacements so we can lessen our reliance on plastics – just don’t seem to be ready yet. So we’ve ended up with ‘crisis’ labels and political party pledges to throw huge sums of money at the problem.

Is that, in all likelihood, going to be sufficient to overcome these challenges though?

Shifting the onus

A primary element that makes up the New Green Deal for the various parties is the need to make homes more environmentally-friendly, either by building them from the ground up to be energy-efficient or through upgrading existing homes.

This, on the surface of it and notwithstanding the associated eyewatering price tag, does sound like a sensible approach to improving environmental performance. The problem with it, as so often seems to be the case, is that it accepts the onus should sit squarely on the shoulders of business and government to overcome these issues. It is not the responsibility of individuals – or, to give them their rightful title, consumers – to pitch in.

Again, there is some sense to this. After all, the environmental contribution of a single residential house pales by comparison with an energy company burning huge fossil fuel deposits. Or a car manufacturer. Or a retailer shipping millions of orders each year.

Businesses haven’t always made useful comments in the public domain either. Consider, for example, the outcry when the boss of Centrica said people should wear two jumpers to stay warm, as they put up the price of gas.

The problem of ‘consumer’

As insensitive as it may be for the head of an energy firm to make such a statement, it does reveal something about the gap that we perceive between business and individual responsibilities.

As we have been trained to act as consumers – a definition of individual who is positioned at the end of business processes, with little involvement until the point of service delivery – it has served to make us reliant on businesses to sort out any problems. We are the passive recipients of services; we don’t have to lift a finger, because it’s the role of businesses to do so on our behalf. And if we don’t like the options presented to us, or something isn’t working very well, it represents an opportunity for a new business model or technological innovation to fill that gap.

The trouble with this ‘passive consumer’ identity is that it actually translates to fecklessness on the part of the individual, as we become seemingly unwilling, or perhaps unable, to make basic adjustments to our lives that would help to alleviate some of the challenges we face. Convenience is too strong a concept, that has been too firmly embedded, for us to see it as our responsibility to do so.

The litany of inactivity

The clearest example of this, given the need to act on our environmental inefficiency, can be seen in our continuing use of cars. The message that our vehicles contribute emissions and produce unclean air in our cities has been drilled in ad infinitum, but driving is too convenient an activity for people to give up those vehicles. We still drive short distances, even if it means sitting in traffic, where we could sometimes easily walk or use public transport and, which is particularly revealing, drop their children off at school by car every morning (when the parents live, by virtue of how the system works, within a proximal catchment area of them).

We also know that lights / devices should be turned off when not in the room or using them. And that the heating shouldn’t be left up too high consistently; expecting people to wear jumpers in freezing cold houses is unreasonable, but expecting to be able to wear shorts indoors all year round is perhaps a bit unreasonable too. And yet it remains very common to find these turned on / up high.

And then there is retail. Despite the rollout of a wide infrastructure of click and collect locations (stores, newsagents, train stations etc), a recent IMRG study found 88% prefer their goods to be delivered to their homes, whether they are there or not to receive them. This was up from 79% in 2018. If shoppers can be convinced to pick up and return their goods, offering businesses greater chances for consolidation rather than requiring more van trips every time, it has potential for improving the environmental performance of online shopping. But the study found little evidence of people being willing to make that effort – indeed, it painted a picture of a customer who is hardening around the expectation of absolute convenience. The message that comes out, loud and clear, is: ‘you sort it out’.

And so, facing such a range of challenges and such pressure to overcome them, and a definition of individual so unwilling to support businesses in achieving it, what is the logical way forward here?

Making changes to the infrastructure – ie making buildings more energy-efficient – does seem like a positive approach. But these ideas are being debated with the tacit understanding that nothing need change about how we define the role of the individual in all this, and what their personal responsibilities may be. Consumers, it would seem, are too pampered to participate.

We don’t want to stop taking 30 flights per year; we just want businesses to build electric airplanes. We don’t want to stop driving short distances because it’s more convenient; we just want businesses to shift over to electric cars. But this heavy reliance on electricity as the ‘clean’ answer to all our environmental woes seems misplaced. A few decades ago, diesel engines were touted as being a more environmentally-friendly alternative to petrol engines; they have since became a major part of the problem. As we switch over to electricity as the primary energy source for every device and vehicle, it seems guaranteed to bring its own unforeseen problems in time.

And how will we respond to that? By demanding a shift in energy sources again? What if we run out of alternative sources?

A far smarter approach would be for a shift in the way business works, so that we don’t end up stuck with a version of individual who is so resistant to pitching in where required, and so utterly beholden to convenience. Because, when we enter phases such as the one we are currently in, it puts businesses and governments in a very difficult, arguably even silly, position indeed.

This institute argues that it is not only no longer useful to define individuals as consumers, it is no longer relevant to do so because of the way digital technology connects us into everything that happens – before, during and after business processes. It requires an infrastructure based not around our consumption, but our participation.

A brief introduction to this concept can be seen here; it will be examined in far more detail in the coming months.

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