Business and government working together is key to greener living

Persuading consumers to act collectively to push the economy in a more sustainable direction is difficult, so government and business need to work together to make change happen, says Matthew Farrow.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I remember Jonathon Porritt as one of the first people I ever saw on TV talking about the environment. He was involved in the founding of the Green Party and making Friends of the Earth a major force and though he is less influential these days, his long experience in the environmental movement means he is always worth listening to.

I recently heard him at a conference talking about the lessons he had learnt in his 40 years in the environmental movement. I was struck by what he listed as one of the biggest things he felt the green movement had misunderstood, which was the willingness (or lack of it) of consumers to act in a collective manner to push the economy in a more sustainable direction. He explained the he and his fellow pioneers were convinced that companies and politicians would over time be forced to make huge changes to business models and resource use in response to sustained consumer pressure.

He argued though that in reality, while NGOs had been able to deploy consumer pressure in specific cases to stop individual companies doing flagrantly anti-environmental things through boycotts and direct campaigns, there has been no wider awakening of environmental activism among the public. Instead, he argued environmental progress that had occurred had been driven either by proactive work by business or by direct government regulation.

This very much rings true of my own experience over nearly 15 years working in the environmental world. I was part of the CBI environment policy team that switched the CBI position in favour of legally-binding long-term carbon targets, which in turn helped cement cross-part support for the Climate Change Act. We were able to do this because most of the chief executives of CBI member companies I spoke to genuinely wanted their companies to be on the right side of the debate (and only partly for reputational reasons).

Is there any sense that the consumer green voice is ever going to find its strength? No current TV feature about the current plastics agenda is complete without interviewing someone who is managing to live a plastic-free lifestyle, but I doubt that many will follow their example. Surveys consistently show that only about 5-10% of consumers at most will prioritise green factors when shopping. 

For most consumers, if you provide an environmentally-friendly option that is more expensive than the alterative they won’t buy it (only around 8% of airline passengers voluntarily pay carbon offset surcharges on their flights) or will buy less of it. Conversely if something becomes cheaper because it is more environmentally efficient people often just buy more adding up to the same environmental impact.

One of the most sobering statistics I’ve ever read is that while the average amount of energy used by a standard domestic fridge has fallen by 80% in recent years, the total amount of energy used in the UK for domestic refrigeration has only fallen by 3% - as people get wealthier and fridges cost less to run they buy bigger fridges, or a second fridge.

More recently there has been a lot of interest in whether the propensity of millennials to spend money on experiences rather than physical possessions might presage a more sustainable approach to resource use. But if those experiences involve cheap flights to exotic locations, or cups of coffee served in non-recyclable cups, then I’m not sure. Having said that, there is some evidence that young people do see cars differently from previous generation - i.e. less as desirable fossil-fuel guzzling status symbols and more as tools to be used as necessary (e.g. through services like Uber).

Overall, though, I suspect Tony Blair was right when as prime minister he argued that the only way to tackle issues like climate change was for business and governments to innovate together to ensure that people could live the same lifestyles but with a low carbon impact. Many businesses can be rightly proud of the effort and imagination they have shown in designing more sustainable technologies, products, systems and buildings, but there is much more for them to do.

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.