OPINION: Less is more when saving the world

It all seemed to be going so well. Granted, commu­ni­cating impending planetary disaster and seeking, in return, abstinence from carbon-hungry lifestyles was never going to be the most popular message to get across. Read on...

Nonetheless, at least we’d reached a consensus about the problem, and the ethical and low-carbon consumer within each of us was stirring. Right?

Not quite, apparently, according to our new research outlined in Tipping Point or Turning Point: Social Marketing and Climate Change.

The problem isn’t so much with the issue of climate change itself. Some challen­ges remain, none more so than in the communication of the science in view of creeping doubts about the extent to which human activity is behind the problem. Dissenting voices – among them Channel 4’s Great Global Warming Swindle – are clearly being heard, and for some uncer­tainty provides a handy opt-out to action.

Which brings us to the main challenge: trans­lating concern into action. While we may have cracked it on recycling, the public still fall some way short of co-ordinated and systematic action. Many remain armchair environmentalists who are happier making changes on the margins of their lifestyles than confronting the big tensions around consumption and hyper-mobility.

Not all is lost, however. Behind the downbeat headline assessment there is cause for optimism. Environmental communications and marketing have come a long way – products and PR now trade on quality and novelty rather than guilt. Moreover, sustainable homes are now associated with words like ‘high tech’ and ‘modern’, shedding any connotations of worthiness, and eco cars no longer make the driver a social pariah.

But there is still more to be done. More recog­nition is needed that environmental behaviours are different and few are actually like recycling. There also remains a mismatch between the language used to describe climate change (eg. apocalyptic) and solutions (eg. small actions matter), making some believe personal action is futile. Perhaps most of all, consumers want help navigating the rapidly expanding list of low-carbon options available. There is no shortage of messages out there. But at times like this, quality is better than quantity, and less really is more.

Phil Downing is head of environmental research at Ipsos MORI

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