INFO MAGAZINE - SEPTEMBER
THE BUSINESS OF CLIMATE
Back in 1990, as the green movement first gained critical mass
amongst consumers, I was involved in the development of an
advertising campaign in the UK and Germany. The TV spot did not
show any glossy product shots, but simply a sequence of beautiful
natural and animal scenes against a soundtrack of Louis Armstrong singing 'What a Wonderful
World'. At the end, a voice-over informed viewers that cars from Vauxhall and
Opel would be fitted with catalytic converters
at no extra cost (rivals were charging extra for these). The
campaign was an enormous success, winning a Gold EFFIE Award that
year for marketing effectiveness. Vauxhall and Opel's brand image
improved dramatically and the public bought their cars in record
Since then, it has become rather less
straightforward to influence consumer attitudes and behaviour.
A mixture of general apathy, changing government priorities and
frustration over "greenwash" has left the public confused and
uncertain about their personal roles in limiting climate change.
Moreover, surely as long as the US keeps guzzling gas and China
keeps burning coal, there's little an individual citizen can
Despite this, however, for any agreements made at the
forthcoming COP21 Climate Change conference to be effective
consumers are undoubtedly going to have to be on board. With BP predicting a rise
in global energy consumption of 41% between 2012 and 2035, public
sentiment and action will need to change if the world is to pursue
a sustainable path.
So what are the barriers and what needs to change?
The starting point is the difficulty in perceiving climate
change. After all, the symptoms are, for the most part, a slow
creep of statistics. NASA may have announced in July that the last
six months have been the warmest mid-year sequence since 1880 - but
what does that really mean? The inherent nature of climate change
is a slow, imperceptible drift punctuated by extreme and disruptive
weather events. It's the events that usually grab the headlines,
with causal links difficult to make.
A second barrier is that consumers may feel that the low-hanging
fruit is all gone and from now on the environmental trade-offs will
get more complex and more expensive. Not entirely true. Despite
successful campaigns promoting such things as home insulation,
low-energy bulbs and solar panels, there is much more to be done;
the real challenge lies in changing behaviours.
This brings us to society's pre-occupation with "newness".
Consumers have been conditioned to want the latest in everything,
and to pay a profits-friendly premium for it. But making things new
every time is superbly wasteful. It's not just about encouraging
consumers to recycle, it's about building a culture that equates
new with wastefulness, not the leading edge.
A small example of the challenge ahead: it's been some
years since manufacturers successfully developed furnace-friendly
paint to enable old building materials to be recycled, but buyers
missed the "new paint" smell and shunned the option. Clearly there
is psychology as well as chemistry to overcome.
It is certainly true that trends amongst the Facebook Generation show a different balance
between ownership and usage. Why own things when you can rent,
share or borrow them? For them, possessions are out and experiences
are in. However, with this attitude comes a certain disengagement
from the hard facts of the world around. The TwentySomethingLondon.com guide to independent
London captured the zeitgeist of a generation when it announced an
app to make going out with your mates "as easy as doing quantum
physics". So much for science, let's get on with the important
things in life!
But even virtual consumption has a real affect on the
environment. Some 11% of the energy currently consumed in the UK is
devoted to running the internet, and this will only rise. A future
sustainable world is going to have to find energy-efficient ways of
"doing digital" too - as Google has pioneered, using solar energy to
power its latest data centres.
organisations are already adopting so-called 'Circular Economy'
models to become more sustainable and gain competitive advantage.
Research by Accenture recently identified five drivers of
the so-called "Circular Economy", identifying production and
consumption systems that combine traditional renewable and
recycling strategies with newer ideas such as product life
extension, sharing platforms and product-as-a-service strategies.
All of them represent a fundamental consumption shift from volume
to performance that will need to be reflected in the ways in which
governments and businesses communicate with their citizens and
Consumer education and information will have important roles to
In many countries, businesses are beginning to recognise their
part in building public momentum versus the ups and downs of
Government policy. French companies, with their leading positions
in energy markets in the UK and elsewhere, are likely to play a
leading part in shaping public take-up of the energy-efficient
products and services in the future, whether EDF and Areva in the
nuclear industry, Veolia leading the delivery of Circular
systems, Bolloré with its Autolib' electric car sharing
service or Alstom's new energy recovery system for the
At the domestic and small business level, studies around the
world have shown that simply making energy usage visible through
the introduction of 'Smart Meters' can lead to a reduction of 9% in
personal energy consumption; switching to these would more than
deliver the UK Government's current target of a 2% saving.
According to Peter Franklin of energy consultancy Enstra, the next generation of these systems
will use this information both to reduce overall consumption and to
educate consumers about switching their energy usage outside peak
periods of demand. Public behaviour in the future is likely to be
shaped by a mixture of rewards and penalties. As Bill Bernbach
famously said, "It's not a principle until it costs you money".
The Swiss authorities realised this many years ago and
instituted a mandatory system for rubbish collection, giving bags
for waste to be recycled for free, but charging SFr20 for bags used
for unsorted rubbish.
As well as encouraging recycling by consumers, Germany took the
issue one step up the distribution chain, forcing retailers to pay
for the 'Green Dot' scheme on all packaging: the more there is, the
higher the fee. The response, simpler packaging, has alone resulted
in a drop of 1 million tons per year in the country's annual waste
of 30 million tons.
There is more to do worldwide at all levels in society. The
challenges will be tough, but both government and industry must
grasp the opportunities to shape public opinion - and, like
Vauxhall and Opel, reap the potential benefits in image and
sales. We would all be winners from this. How about a new
awards ceremony for those companies doing the most to change public
perceptions and behaviours?
Peter Stephenson-Wright is
Affiliate Professor at ESCP Europe Business School, and Programme
Director for the MSc in Marketing & Creativity.
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