Increased environmental leadership from the private sector driven by the threat - and opportunities - of climate change is a double-edged sword for the environmental movement, says Tom Crompton, "change strategist" for WWF.
The climate debate is becoming increasingly focused on ‘win-win’ solutions that emphasise the non-environmental benefits of environmental actions, such as the money saved by using less energy or the improved public image from taking a green stance.
Environmental groups have embraced the idea of green marketing and built campaigns around encouraging people to make small, painless steps in the hope they will lead to larger changes in the future.
But Dr Crompton warns in a report for WWF that environmental groups following this strategy risk becoming sidelined as businesses increasingly occupy this ground to take advantage of green consumerism’s commercial opportunities.1 More importantly, he argues that traditional marketing which appeals to short-term self interest such as financial savings or acquisition of high-status products, is inadequate for addressing climate change. "We cannot shop ourselves out of this crisis," he said. "Constant appeals to materialistic self interest or the business case for action simply won’t get us far enough."
Drawing on expertise from environmentalists, social psychologists and marketing experts, he has examined what makes green marketing effective. While he accepts that appealing to people’s pockets can deliver some piecemeal benefits, he insists that those who adopt lifestyle changes for environmental reasons tend to stick with them and go further.
In fact, he says, marketing approaches could be offering a false sense of security: "It may actually lead to procrastination, preventing people from taking action," he said. "It is a distraction from the fundamental problems inherent to consumerism."
He wants green groups to be more willing to voice their core values and appeal to people to join the environmental movement because they identify with those values. This, he argues, is more likely to lead to deep and long-lasting behavioural changes and offers the best hope for creating support for the radical action needed to rein in climate change.
"The more difficult the change you’re asking people for, the greater the motivation you need. As things become more demanding, the greater the advantage of an appeal to people’s sense of relationship to others, their community, or the natural environment," he explained.
He thinks the green movement needs to be more open about the impacts of climate change that are likely to occur as a result of the carbon dioxide that has already been released. NGOs must also be more honest about the sacrifices society will need to make to tackle climate change realistically.
"There is a belief that everything has to be framed in upbeat positive messages," he said. "But we have to get to the point where we see the damage we’ve done, recognise our complicity in it and then move beyond a feeling of guilt and into communal action."
He sees this as a way of creating much-needed political space for radical action, allowing leaders to take what would currently be viewed as vote-losing actions.
"It’s often not in the policymaker’s gift to intervene in the ways that are needed because of public opposition to many measures," explained Dr Crompton. "We need to create a shift in public acceptance, and even public demand for regulation."