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While companies continue to strive for sustainability, consumers still at the heart of lasting change

| Innovation and technology

A decade ago something remarkable happened: Business leaders watched Al Gore present An Inconvenient Truth, and accepted that man-made climate change was real and catastrophic.

CEOs said that something must be done and embraced carbon pricing and emissions trading. These same captains of industry were further encouraged when the UK Stern Review explained that early investment in low-carbon solutions would outweigh its costs and boost economic growth.

In the consumer goods sector something even more remarkable happened. Executives seized on the idea that consumers could be the key to a sustainable future. As Al Gore put it, “each one of us can make choices to change the things we buy, the electricity we use, the cars we drive; we can make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero”.

One by one, consumer goods companies came forward with their plans: Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, promised to “take non-renewable energy off our shelves and out of the lives of our customers”; while Tesco, the UK’s biggest retailer, committed itself to “a mass movement in green consumption.”

A decade later and corporate work on sustainability continues. Many consumer goods companies are reducing their direct emissions. Some are also working upstream, seeking more sustainable supply chains, and tackling waste, deforestation and water stress. But the emphasis is very much on how the companies themselves will change, much less on how consumer action holds the key.

Somewhere along the way we have lost our belief in the power of consumers to achieve the biggest change.

Some might see this a more mature approach after that first flush of enthusiasm a decade ago. There were always campaigners who dismissed the focus on consumers as a tactic by business to shuffle responsibility off of itself.

Two facts should make us change our minds

Firstly, global emissions are still going up, not down. The top-down approach – whether from business or government – isn’t working.

Secondly, by focusing on their own operations, businesses miss their biggest opportunity to achieve change. For every tonne of carbon a retailer emits in its own operations, one hundred tonnes are emitted by consumers through their everyday choices and actions. By empowering its customers, a business can magnify its sustainability impact a hundred fold.

That’s why we need to renew our commitment to consumer action.

The main reason companies have lost faith in the consumer is because empowering people to make lasting changes is hard. Habits are sticky. Change can be costly and inconvenient. Consumers need help, and businesses are not always comfortable in giving this help. Initiatives can be poorly researched, strike at the wrong problem, be too short-lived or too small in scale.

Achieving positive, lasting change requires patience. It means finding solutions which go with the grain of people’s lives and which make them feel better about themselves and the world they live in.   

Here is one small example from my own business. In 2010 Pick n Pay, one of South Africa’s leading food retailers, embarked on a partnership with WWF to strengthen marine sustainability. Within a year it led to a commitment by Pick n Pay to sell only sustainable seafood in all its stores by 2016.

This goal could never be realised unless it engaged customers and suppliers. Much of the campaigning on marine sustainability worldwide has been negative – focusing on what is being lost. Pick n Pay focused instead on what could be gained if we acted, explaining that better management of the fish stocks within the seas of South Africa could still be achieved. Working with others, the company provided customers with a simple guide – the SASSI List – which explained which seafood was safe to harvest and which should be avoided due to decline in stocks. It has been one of the most successful campaigns of its type in the world.

We must renew our faith in the power of consumers. People want to do the right thing - we must give them the tools. And we need to communicate hope, not fear – a belief that millions of people can make a positive difference rather than no difference at all.

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