Dysfunctional politicians and the power of brands
Governments appear to be clueless about sustainability, so we have to encourage people to believe they can make a difference
A bit of me still recoils in a mixture of repugnance and disbelief at the idea that it's going to be the world's leading brands that will rescue us from the slow but inexorable slide into ecological disaster. After all, it's many of those same brands that have been in the vanguard of today's planet-trashing hyper-consumption, contributing not just to the long list of environmental problems but also to a world ever more viciously divided between the haves and have-nots.
The rich world's elites were only too happy earlier in 2011 to see protesters out on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sana'a and Benghazi. The disaffection that gave birth to the Arab Spring was demonstrably "a good thing", promising the downfall of dictators and the prospect of western-style, market-based democracies. But they're now more than a little non-plussed at the sight of protesters on the streets of Madrid, Lisbon, London, New York and other cities, expressing their own bitter disaffection with the failures of that very same brand of market-based democracy. When confronting the gold-plated, ludicrously over-privileged lives of the richest 1% in the world today, "we are the 99%" may just turn out to be as powerful a rallying cry in the west as in the Middle East.
As those divides deepen, and the planet's life support systems get just a little more stressed out every year, it seems sort of preposterous to conjure up the power of leading brands to turn things around. As Prof Tim Jackson has pointed out so tellingly in his 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, many brands are very far from being a "force for good" in the world: "People are being persuaded to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about."
But then just look around you at the broader sustainability scene. The vast majority of consumers are still either confused/disempowered, or indifferent/ignorant – I know it's not politically correct to say that, but it's true. Worse yet, the vast majority of investors are still intent on maximising short-term returns rather than building over the long term – even when it's their own pension funds that they're investing in.
And worst of all, governments the world over would appear to be clueless about transitioning their economies from yesterday's patently unsustainable "smash and grab, slash and burn" to the kind of sustainable capitalism that offers the prospect of better lives for the 99% while staying within recognised environmental limits – without too traumatic a decline in the living standards of the 1%.
The potential power of brands
So let's not look these branded gift-horses in the mouth. When I compare our politicians' sorry performance on environmental issues with the performance of some of Forum for the Future's leading corporate partners, there's no question who is making the bigger difference. Not just in terms of reducing their own direct footprint, but in helping their customers improve their own lives in increasingly more sustainable and responsible ways.
Brands are so much better placed to narrow that frightening values-action gap that politicians have to confront (where the voters say one thing and promptly do another), and are somehow more trustworthy precisely because they are so clearly in the business of making money out of doing the right thing. As Dorothy Mackenzie of the brand consulting business, Dragon Rouge puts it: "People resist moralising statements. But everyone knows a brand is out to make money and that clarity of intent wins trust."
And that trust creates the space to innovate. While politicians sit around waiting for people to show them where they want to go, companies can use the power of their brands to help normalise our behaviour – "wash at 30C', "less is more" (with concentrated detergents or energy-efficient light bulbs), "healthy choices, better lives", and so on.
Designing-in sustainability and dithering politicians
Sometimes it's not even necessary to ask or even inform consumers: build it in – "sustainability inside", as it were – and don't get too het up if people don't know exactly what those benefits are all about. How many ordinary citizens have the first clue what Intel Inside means, even as they feel vaguely good that the latest gizmo that they're splashing out on offers them that reassurance?
And that's about as good as it gets at the moment as politicians dither and short-termism rules supreme in our capital markets. What we need to do is build aspirational armies of citizen-consumers who no longer feel the need to get cynical at the idea of "small actions, big difference". It's all about scale, as explained by John Thøgersen, professor of economic psychology at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Science in Denmark: "One of the reasons why people are passive is that they feel no one else is doing anything. When it comes to climate change, your contribution is so small it doesn't really matter. What matters is what other people do. If you don't perceive that many people are also saving energy, then you feel a bit of a sucker because you're losing something without helping the problem."
In that regard, things have moved on a long way from the "I will if you will" message that the UK's Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption first came up with nearly six years ago. Today's leading brands have a much more dynamic story to tell: "we have, so you can".
And we certainly need to see still-fashionable cynicism put aside. Short of the whole global economy imploding in front of our eyes (which I can assure you would do very little to enhance the prospect of a genuinely sustainable world), we have to take people with us, step by step, not beat them into submission.
Solitaire Townsend, one of the co-founders of communications consultancy Futerra, has been particularly trenchant in her critique of conventional campaigning: "Environmentalists are very good at identifying what people should desire, not what they actually do desire." She has exhorted politicians and businesses alike to put "the sizzle" into sustainability, using humour, creativity, peer-to-peer messaging and real people making a real difference in compelling, sassy ways: "a live, warm-blooded human being is top trumps when it comes to changing behaviour".
I go with all that – as do all of our corporate partners and their brands. But not at the expense of some deeper probing about the scale of the change required. As yet, even at its best, we're nowhere near the zone of genuinely sustainable consumption – less unsustainable consumption is still the name of the game.
But I really don't blame companies for that. It's governments that set the rules within which companies operate in terms of regulation, taxation, incentives, public procurement and so on. Unfortunately, governments are so in hock to incumbent corporate power-brokers and so timid in the face of the utterly predictable whingeing from trade associations and all those vested interests who stand to lose most as we innovate our way through to a dynamic low-carbon, equitable economy. The most we can expect of such dysfunctional politicians, whatever their party loyalty, is for them not to get in the way of those who've seen what a better future really looks like and are seriously intent on making it happen.
Credit: Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future. For The Guardian. This article is an edited version of a piece that will be published by Unilever on 22 November at their sustainable living debate.