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Climate change defeatism – an opportunity for behaviour change?

By Alex Hughes

October 25, 2013

Article 13 recently attended the Guardian Sustainable Business Short, “Consumer Behaviour Change”, which discussed the role of the private sector in engaging the public on better, more sustainable behaviours. Behaviour change is an area typically confined to the public sector, but is of growing interest to businesses. Recent research revealed that 94% “believe behaviour change is important to help their organisation improve its impact on society, and achieve long-term success”.

So why this new impetus? In effect, companies can only go so far internally to reduce their impact. For instance,Unilever has found that over two thirds of its greenhouse gas impact comes from the consumer use of its products. So the company really should engage with the public to help them reduce theirs. We are in some respects experiencing the limits of political will and technological advances on the production side, so perhaps the private sector should take a more proactive approach in engaging the public on the consumption side.

This new direction is reinforced when you contrast the increasing certainty of ‘man-made’ climate change with the seemingly defeatist attitude on an individual and collective level. This scenario is highlighted in a previous Ipsos MORI report, Public Attitudes to Science, which revealed that 30% of people in 2011 believed the ‘benefits of climate change outweighed the risks’, up from 14% in 2005.

If there is an increasing apathy among people to the message of catastrophic climate change, and therefore limited action, surely the way it is communicated needs to be altered. Ultimately, improved statistics can only go so far and inherently it would seem they aren’t working (perhaps it is the way they are communicated to the public or perhaps the way they are understood by the public).

On an individual level, a person’s impact on the climate involves a large array of complicated behaviours. The task of sufficient individual change to reduce our impact could seem insurmountable. Would identifying and unpicking each of the behaviours contributing to climate change reduce our impact sufficiently? Or would such a task prove too costly and time consuming? A more holistic approach which identifies with peoples’ existing value systems will enable a step change and more proactive action.

Of course, for such a change to occur, a number of actors would have to be involved. But businesses do have a wealth of data on their markets and consumer patterns, so arguably the concept of widespread sustainable corporate behaviour programmes may not be far off. Is business best suited to support this planetary imperative through behaviour change? Or is more radical change needed through companies espousing different values?

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