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Facing the climate crisis as Citizens, not Consumers

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27 August 2020 Community

The Consumer will never solve the climate crisis. So, how can businesses build agency in people as Citizens?

About the author of this post: Andy Galloway is a Clim8 investor and works at New Citizenship Project, a think tank and consultancy working with organisations of all kinds to develop ways to involve people as Citizens rather than treating them as Consumers. Opinions are his own.

Citizenship isn’t a new idea when it comes to climate change. Many people have articulated the need for collaboration, participation and collective effort from individuals, businesses and governments in order to reach our climate goals. And yet, when it comes to creating impact for the environment, many organisations still revert back to doing things for people as Consumers, rather than actively involving people as Citizens in the process.

Whilst the world of sustainability talks about Citizens and the world of business talks about Consumers, there will always be a tension that limits what we can achieve – but there is a solution, and it could start with the very businesses we’re investing in through Clim8.

Understanding the Consumer

Our world is dominated by the overarching story that the only way we can participate in society or create change is through our consumption. What was initially a liberating shift from the ‘Subject’ narrative that prevailed prior to the two world wars, has now permeated through all aspects of our involvement in society and become an identity construct which, especially for our climate, is proving ultimately unsustainable.

Every day, we are bombarded by commercial messages reinforcing extrinsic values of consumption, power and competition, reminding us that what we consume is the primary driver of our identity. ‘Consumer behaviour’ is consistently referred to by companies when deciding what products to develop and is even used as an excuse for inaction.

To help illustrate how this Consumer narrative manifests itself in our everyday lives, have a go at this quick exercise:

Think of the last advert or commercial message you saw (or go to a website right now and find one) and look at the table below. In which column does it position you as the receiver?

I’ll bet that for most, it was in the middle.

There are gravitational pulls from governments and organisations back towards the Subject and forward towards the Citizen – but overall, it’s clear that we’re living in a Consumer society.

Why is that a bad thing?

Direct extraction, production and consumption are well known to have massive carbon footprints in ‘Consumer industries’ such as textiles and food. While these are societal norms, the extent to which the ‘Consumer’ can effect change will only ever be through changes in consumption, which is likely limited to the privileged few and subject to market forces which prevent large-scale shifts.

When we think of people as Consumers, it is easy to accept the conventional wisdom that people are selfish, lazy and materialistic. After all, Consumers only do what is easy, not what’s needed. They take small actions, not big ones. They act as individuals, not as a collective.

Ultimately, when it comes to solving the climate crisis, the values of the Consumer are fundamentally opposed to the values we need.

But, by nature we are Citizens, not Consumers. We are wired for community, not consumption. We are collaborative and empathetic creatures who can and want to work together to make things better. We’ve seen this in times of crisis – just look at the swathes of people signing up to be NHS Responders or join mutual aid groups during the coronavirus pandemic. As Citizens, we step into our power and work together to make things better, as shown through movements like the Youth Climate Strikes.

The problem is that our capacity to meaningfully contribute in this way is helped or hindered by the systems, structures and at root the narratives we surround ourselves with.

When those systems and structures constantly reinforce consumerism, we adopt the mindset of the Consumer, and over time, it sticks. This is a vicious cycle which we need to break.

What can businesses do?

Businesses need to deliver sustainable solutions with people – not just for them. Whether a business has an environmental mission or not, we can all start building the Citizen narrative in our own ways.

1. Start with belief in people

As we’ve seen, the Consumer will never solve the climate crisis, so we need to believe that there is another option. We need to believe that whilst companies might have the knowledge, expertise and experience to deliver sustainable solutions, they don’t necessarily hold all the answers. People want and need to have a deeper, more meaningful role than just accepting an off-the-shelf solution delivered to them.

When addressing business challenges – whether we’re working in sustainability or not – that belief can be acted on by changing our starting point. Reframing our starting point from ‘people want to buy stuff’ to ‘people can and want to get involved in more ways’ is not only a more interesting place to take your business but will also contribute to the changing narrative of our entire society from Consumer to Citizen, and therefore towards climate action. For example, Brewdog have embraced this approach by genuinely involving their customers in every aspect of the business, from production to ownership.

2. Talk Citizen

Language is a powerful thing. Research shows that even when we are temporarily primed as Consumers through language, we are less likely to take action for a cause or trust others to do so. Even when we do buy sustainable products or switch to a renewable energy provider, if we do it for reasons that reinforce the importance of things like image, cost or conformity, we’re more likely to make decisions in future that also stem from those values.

To break this cycle, we need to change the way we communicate with and talk about people. No matter what we’re selling, we need to promote messages of purpose, community and citizenship, rather than just marketing the product as trendy or a way of making or saving money. By doing so, not only will people buy the product, but they’ll also buy into something bigger and have the agency required to get involved in other ways.

3. Become a platform

Once we see people as active agents for change and have appropriately adjusted how we communicate with them, the next natural step is to get them involved in whatever it is that we are doing. If you see people as more than Consumers, then the chances are they will do more than just consume.

Becoming a platform means finding ways for people to contribute in more ways than just by buying a product; it offers opportunities to do things through and with Citizens, rather than just for them.

Here are some thought-starters for how businesses might open up this space for participation:

  • Tell stories: How might we offer a channel that allows people to share stories of their involvement with our organisation? For example, through a guest blog like this one!
  • Gather data: How might our community gather and share data to help with our mission?
  • Share connections: How might we inspire our community to spread our work through their networks?
  • Contribute ideas: How might we genuinely open up the challenges we face to get more ideas from more people?
  • Give time: How might we offer meaningful ways that people can use their time, skills and experiences to help us achieve our shared mission?
  • Learn skills: How might we help people learn and share their relevant skills so that more people can contribute?
  • Crowdfund: How might we create a new product or service that could be funded and part-owned by our community?

Not all of them will be right for every company, but I guarantee that everyone can find a way to use at least one of them to make their organisation more participatory and ultimately, reject the narrative that all we want to do is consume.

The actions explored in this blog won’t change things overnight and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of us all doing our bit. On the contrary, by shifting from doing things for or to people towards doing things with people, there is a really exciting opportunity for businesses – including but not limited to those we’re investing in through Clim8 – to help create the conditions for more of us to take action for climate both individually and collectively.

This shift is all about reimagining the role of people. So, with a nod to the immortal words of JFK: ask not what you can do for Consumers, ask what Citizens can do with you.

Would you like to do more as a business or a citizen for our environment? The Clim8 app, the platform for sustainable investments, is launching soon. Register your interest to get early access to the app.

Investments of this nature carry risks to your capital. Investing in private equity involves a high degree of risk. Please invest aware. Please note this information is for illustrative purposes only and it must not be construed as investment advice

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The era of planetary accountability

Avatar JC Seghers

11 June 2020 Community

JC Seghers is a global changemaker with experience in initiating, scaling up, and delivering on transformational global projects and campaigns unleashing legislation, technology and action to address global warming. He has worked with various multinational companies, industry associations and governments on driving transparent and measurable climate action through scenario analysis, sustainability, data management, and advocacy. He is a realistic optimist and strong believer in the power of humankind. He recently delivered the TEDx Talk ‘I’m Not Telling you Not to Fly’ upon which this article builds.

Opinions are his own.

The era of planetary accountability

Sustainability commitments are no longer sexy. In fact, they feel more and more like New Year’s resolutions – they attract attention, create a short-term buzz and the willingness or ability to stick by them can be ‘patchy’.

The 2010s might have been defined by them and commitments from governments – often state, provincial and regional governments – businesses and civil society created the much needed momentum that lead to the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 – the world’s first ever universal climate change agreement signed by all countries (the effective withdrawal of the United States is not possible before November 4, 2020).

But at the start of the 2020s it’s time to say goodbye to the era of commitments and usher in the era of planetary accountability. Why? Because commitments have now become near obsolete. Because, more than any previous generation, we know there’s only really one single path forward:

We need to zero out global greenhouse gas emissions. Net zero carbon emissions by mid-century (unavoidable emissions in 2050 must be matched by removing emissions from the atmosphere) and phasing out sources of other man-made greenhouse gases, like methane, by 2070.  We need to halt deforestation. We need to preserve and restore natural ecosystems, including our oceans, to grow the world’s carbon sinks.

So now we know exactly where we’re heading, it’s time to rate and reward leaders by their accountability towards that global goal. It’s time to usher in the era of planetary accountability.

Planetary not just climate. We are not just witnessing a climate emergency. We are also witnessing a biodiversity crisis and a resource crisis. They all root in the fact that we have disconnected from nature. We have forgotten that everything we use, eat, play with is only possible because of the wealth of resources our planet provides us. Tackling the biodiversity, climate, and resource crises requires transformational change in every sector, across wide-ranging policies and legislations, and will require buy-in from industry, civil society and indigenous groups. It requires solutions that consider the interconnectivity of these crises that are now spilling over into our economic and social wellbeing.

Accountability because planetaryleaders are no longer defined by their commitments and potential (future) impact. In the era of accountability, leaders are to be defined by their track record, by their pace of transformational change and their ability to walk the talk. Leaders are to be defined by progress. Leaders clean up the mess they have made in the past. Business leaders take account of climate-related financial risk, disclose scenario models up to 2050, re-engineer their products, and offer to take back any products, materials and resources they put on the market. Governmental leaders legislate for a fundamentally different society by mid-century.

And let’s be clear, change is feasible. A lot of the solutions are there, new cleaner and efficient technologies are no longer a futuristic hope, a lot of the policy change has already been suggested. We are seeing momentum shifting, perhaps too slowly, but with more engaged citizens. School children showing they care on the streets and corporate sustainability finally moving from a PR practice into engineering.

Yet, the answers cited to our planetary breakdown are often contradictory, nuanced, complex, and disillusioning, focusing on systemic change beyond the control of the average citizen, business executive or legislator.

So what can we do?

What follows are solutions for a road to recovery that could be adopted by each and one of us. These solutions don’t discriminate between the global north or the global south – they tie in planetary recovery with economic development. Equally important, they apply to individual citizens, legislators and business executives. Finally, they are aimed at addressing the climate, biodiversity and resource crises alike.

1. Cut waste in every shape or form

To change course and tackle our climate, biodiversity and resource emergencies and to reach the pace needed, we have to cut out waste from everything we do, invent and legislate. For far too long, we’ve been led to believe that resource substitution combined with recycling makes it all ok – hardly questioning whether we can avoid something altogether.

Change is possible.

✔ As a citizen, by letting go of anything that will have no real impact on your way of life.

✔ As a business executive, by choosing efficiency and product minimization as a driver of your profitability. 

✔ As a legislator, by incentivizing, financing and subsidizing durability so it becomes equitable for all.

2. Put your money where your mouth is

While the climate risks have been well known for a long time, money has continued to flow into investments that are well known to be at the core of those risks and planetary breakdown. To change course and tackle our climate, biodiversity and resource emergencies, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.

Change is possible.

✔ As a citizen, by greening your spending patterns, consider an environmentally friendly bank and invest any savings – large or small – in those businesses that are making an impact.

✔ As a business executive, by putting an internal tax on carbon counting for the cost of planetary breakdown in any investment decision. By working with service providers that offer your employees environmentally friendly reward packages and pension products.

✔ As a legislator by designing stimulus packages with clear planetary performance metrics. By providing clean tax incentives and considering penalty prices on carbon emissions.

3. Be curious like a kid

Change can only come from informed decisions. When it comes to green credentials, we haven’t probed deep enough. We haven’t fact-checked exaggerated or absurd claims.

Change is possible.

✔ As a citizen, by constantly questioning companies’ green credentials.

✔ As a business executive, by seriously scrutinizing your supply chain – the deeper you get into the supply chain the darker it can get.

✔ As a legislator, by incorporating environmental education into the curriculum at schools.  By demonstrating how looking after nature is a prerequisite for sustained economic development. 

Let’s make full use of the 2020 head start

We’ve known for a while that 2020 was a crucial year. Failing to peak global emissions in 2020 would put limiting the worst effects of global warming out of our reach.

At the start of the year that goal looked uncertain. And then COVID-19 happened. A lot has been written about short and possible longer-term effects of COVID-19 on greenhouse emissions, behaviour change, and the use of single-use plastics. For some, the glass is half full, for some the glass is half empty. Only time will tell.

Emissions in 2020 will drop. And according to the latest estimates quite substantially – possibly by more than 7% globally. Emissions could equally rebound quickly – when economists talk about V or U-shaped recoveries, we could simulate a V or U-shaped rebounding of emissions.

So that leaves us with one certainty – emissions in 2020 will not just peak but fall dramatically. While this drop is for all the wrong reasons, we have been given a head start.

Let’s use it wisely and usher in the era of planetary accountability.

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Retail needs a – “Mission Possible” – to create a sustainable future

Avatar Mike Berry

17 September 2019 Community

Guest Blog – Mike Barry, ex-Head of Sustainability at M&S 

The Retail sector has done much in the last decade on sustainability but it’s increasingly apparent that all this has just been a dress rehearsal, a beginning not an end.  Lots of linear, individual targets, steadily ‘ticked off’ served a purpose, got the ‘flywheel spinning’. But this model cannot keep up with the environmental, social and economic pressures that retail faces. The urgency of the call for change from consumers, colleagues, shareholders, policymakers is palpable. 

Climatically we’ve smashed through the 410 ppm level for atmospheric CO2 levels. Much of the Northern Hemisphere has been in the grip of heatwaves for the last 2 summers. With 8 million tonnes of plastic pouring into the world’s oceans each year it’s become a ubiquitous pollutant in nature (found in fish, birds, sediment, drinking water, sewage sludge etc) and the ‘poster child’ of all that is wrong about a throwaway society.

So let’s be harsh on ourselves, the scale of our current plans is wholly inadequate. But we can change provided we develop quickly a new mind-set, one that recognises we need to:

  • Satisfy a massive untapped customer need on sustainability – The biggest blocker to change is the paralysis induced by an outdated 20th Century view of sustainable consumption i.e. green products inevitably cost more and perform worse and consumers are not willing to take this hit. This is no longer true. People do want to want to eat meat alternatives – provided they look and taste fantastic. They do want to drive Electric Vehicles – but first, they need a charging network they can be confident in. They do want to recycle clothes – provided it’s easy. Retailers who square the circle of ‘good for you, good for others’ will win.
  • Seize the potential of the digital revolution – Retail is made up of big numbers – 1000s of shops, 10000s of products, factories and farms, billions of items. Tracing all of this and tracking its social and environmental performance using a conventional ‘spreadsheet’ approach is impossible. Now AI, big data and sensors allow us to do this simply and efficiently.
  • Be active participants in creating a policy system in which sustainable retailing can thrive – retail today is regulated in an old fashioned 20th Century way. We need to help shape actively a new policy system on renewables, human rights, water resources etc that helps not hinders us in creating a sustainable future.
  • Supercharge Collaboration – retailers are a competitive bunch but in the last few years, we’ve started to learn how to collaborate to get sustainable things done faster, more cheaply and with greater scale. Plastics Pact, Champions (food waste), the Consumer Goods Forum (deforestation) all point to the potential of collaboration, and we need to be hungry for more.
  • Take a Systems approach – perhaps hardest of all we need some systems thinking. We’ve spent 40 years breaking retail down into tiny, functional silos. Now we need to recognise that consumption is a dependent ecosystem. Not just along an economic value chain. Not just in how we see consumers swapping seamlessly from a physical to an online retail experience but also in how we understand that the food system and nature are symbiotically linked and need to be managed as such.

And ultimately this is what a Retail Mission Possible is:  a mindset shift as much as a technology revolution, that recognises the profound need for change and embraces its potential to serve positively consumers, planet and society alike.

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