Companies are in a bind. The pressure is on them to become sustainable, but they know they can’t do it alone. Sure, they can cut energy use, reduce waste, limit water consumption and generally create a spick-and-span, eco-tastic chain of production. But they need consumers on board too. Why? Because a chunk of their environmental impacts occur when their products get into our mitts. And therein lies the bind. We, the consumer, do what we like. We’re free to choose. Not that we’re beyond being influenced. Make sustainability easy, normal and fun, and we should buy into it. That’s the idea, at least.
In the third in a series of discussions supported by Unilever, Guardian Sustainable Business gathered together experts to discuss how companies can help make sustainability “just living”. The panel included Cheryl Hicks, team leader for sustainable lifestyles at UNEP/Wuppertal Institute Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Production and Consumption (CSCP); Freya Williams, director of strategy at OgilvyEarth; David Jones, global CEO at Havas and co-founder of One Young World; Fergus Lowe, professor in psychology at Bangor University; Mark Earls, author of Herd; Stefano Giolito, director, sustainability at Unilever; Dr Mark Cobain, global new business director at Unilever.
Moving with the tide
Changing habits isn’t easy. That said, the trends augur well for a shift to sustainable living. We, the people, are broadly in favour. Lifestyles with less wastage and lower environmental impacts strike us as, well, not unreasonable. Cheryl Hicks, a sustainable consumption expert, pointed to “mounting evidence” of more sustainable ways of living in Europe. The watchwords for future lifestyles are “efficient” (i.e., wasting less), “different” (“a shift in preferences from quantity and ownership to access and quality”) and “sufficient” (“conscious efforts to consume less”).
David Jones, chief executive of media group Havas, echoed that optimistic note. Today’s youth hold the key, he reckoned. Their desire to change the world and their social media savviness mean they have the desire and, more importantly, the ability to reward sustainable companies. Indeed, it could be said that we’re on the verge of a “generational shift”, where irresponsible become viewed as “socially unacceptable”. At least, so thinks Freya Williams, director of strategy at OgilvyEarth. Look at NikeFuel. All of a sudden, good living is “fun, cool and visible”, she observed.
Dos and don’ts
Unilever’s Mark Cobain emphasised ease over entertainment. Making sustainability fun is fine; making it easy is essential. Anything that takes undue time or requires extra thought turns online shoppers off, he argued. In other words, the simpler, the better. Similarly, he advocated easing people into new behaviours. Shock doctrine and sustainable living don’t mix. It’s unrealistic to expect a season car driver to swap their gas-guzzler for a pedal bike. But buy a hybrid or join a car-sharing club – now that borders on the possible.
However, just because the zeitgeist is green, doesn’t mean the future will be, too. Some tips on how not to mess it up. First, don’t preach. Boring facts about healthy eating have never stopped a child scoffing down a doughnut, suggested Fergus Lowe, professor in psychology at Bangor University. Far better is a systematic approach based on fun, rewards and peer influence, such as the the Food Dudes programme. Secondly, don’t price eco-products too high. Making sustainability the expensive option is a ticket to failure, argued Williams. Normalise the price, she insisted. Thirdly, package eco offerings as regular fare. Consumers, by and large, like the mainstream. Niche, we’re not so sure about. So best to ditch the “green” labels.
Big up brand power
Of course, none of us are really entirely free to choose. We’re targeted by messages day in, day out. Like it or not, many of those come from big brands. For individuals to adopt sustainable lifestyles, our good intentions need to be translated into practical actions, says Unilever’s Stefano Giolito. Brands embody values and aspirations, so they should do what they do best: make great (and preferably sustainable) products, and then use their brand power to get people using them. The success of such a strategy will be born from marketing simplicity, added Hicks. “Brand strategists hold the unique skills to distil complex issues and ideas down to something that people will understand, remember, and act upon.”
Legislating for change
There is another option of course. Regarding the car to bike idea mentioned earlier, legislators could simply issue a blanket ban on the combustion engine, although that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Even so, a case can be made for law-making as the “fastest and most effective” towards changing behaviour. David Jones argued exactly that. Consider smoking: “Who would have though just a decade ago that it would be now illegal to smoke in most bars and restaurants in the major capitals?” he asked. So too with CFCs and car emissions. “If you legislate, it works”. But does it? Bangor University’s Lowe wondered how you would legislate for a child to like broccoli. Laws are good at stopping us from certain actions, but weak at initiating us in others. Mark Earls, author of the book Herd, points to the example of a tax on fizzy drinks in New York. Such a measure may eventually skew the market towards healthier beverages, “but it will not work for everyone, nor will its impact be equal in all locations or amongst all demographics”.
Other, less blunt tools are needed. Unilever’s Mark Cobain had a suggestion. He’d like to see the creation of supportive environments, where sustainable living is easy (easier than unsustainable living, that is). Hicks agreed. She gave the example of sustainable cities. Legislators are important, of course. They set planning rules and CO2 targets. But we need the engineers, designers and architects to put these into effect. Once a sustainable infrastructure is in place, options like public transport or off-peak electricity use become straightforward for Joe Public.
Pulling the celeb card
Like everything else these days, if the sensible stuff (see above) doesn’t work, then you can call in a celebrity. Take Matt Damon’s work on water conservation. Celebs, like brands, have a massive opportunity to be a positive force of change, said Unilever’s Giolito. But fame without feelings may no longer be quite good enough. As Havas’s Jones concluded: “Authenticity is becoming way more important than image”. Proof, indeed, that change is thankfully possible.
This article forms part of Let’s talk sustainable living, a series of thought provoking conversations around the big challenges facing companies in making sustainable living mainstream. Produced by Guardian Sustainable Business in association with Unilever.
This content is brought to you by Guardian Sustainable Business in association with Unilever. Produced by Guardian Business and Professional to a brief agreed with Unilever. Paid for by Unilever. All editorial controlled and overseen by the Guardian.
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