RED C Sustainability Monitor – April 2023
The climate crisis – a mountain too steep for now
One of my favourite animated movies growing up as a young boy was Disney’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’. You may have seen it – a young Arthur is taken on a series of comedic adventures by Merlin who is determined to help prepare him for life.
In one particular scene of the movie, an opportunistic, yet comically unfortunate and down on his luck wolf, struggles to track and prey upon an unknowing Arthur, who is being led by an elderly, yet surprisingly sprightly Merlin. After an arduous struggle to keep up, the gasping wolf arrives at the top of a steep, rocky hill, only to discover that his intended ‘meal’ has already backtracked and bounded all the way back down the hill they just climbed up. The wolf cannot believe it, and passes out in true animated fashion upon coming to the realisation that he must go through it all again!
In the wake of Covid and in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, the climate crisis seems a bit like this. An arduous struggle to make it to the summit, only to be told that the real struggle has just begun and that there is a whole lot of mountain left to climb.
RED C’s latest Consumer Sustainability Monitor results from Apr ’23 seem to reflect the psychological effect of this realisation, with continued decline in consumers’ feeling that their personal actions can improve the environment, and nearly half claiming they try not to think about the climate crisis because of how depressing it is.
It’s as if consumers have hit a wall and are shutting off. With the accumulated weight of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis on their backs, the ‘sustainability mountain’ has come into view and is looking unscalable. And in fairness to the wolf from The Sword in the Stone, this isn’t the hill that he climbed, not by a long shot. It’s looking more and more like Mount Everest with each passing day, and to make matters worse, the mountain literally gets steeper the longer the delay in taking drastic action.
Drastic. That word probably says it all. Tackling the Covid pandemic, as we all know, involved ‘drastic action’, much more than most could have ever expected, yet leading experts are advising that even more drastic action is needed to tackle the climate crisis.
More drastic than what we experienced during Covid – how can that even be possible? How can we possibly replicate that level of behavioural change, and somehow do that in a way that becomes the new normal – not just a blip on the radar? It doesn’t seem possible at present.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t still concern for the environment or in living sustainably. We know that 4 in 5 Irish adults agree that global warming is a serious threat to mankind, with nearly all (87%) agreeing that we have to take action now on the environment to protect our children. Despite this concern though, the general public is wearied by Covid, burdened by higher cost of living, and an unassisted ‘climate crisis’ climb is looking like an insurmountable one at present.
The current level of unwillingness to make further lifestyle changes is reflective of this wearied state of mind. Take flying and meat consumption as examples. Nearly 1 in 3 are not open to flying less often, with this especially prevalent amongst higher social grades and older men, and 2 in 5 are not open to regularly eating plant-based foods and limiting meat consumption, again especially high amongst older men. There is a willingness to use less energy to cut costs, and to recycle which requires minimal effort, but taking away sun holidays and burgers is a mountain too tall for some. Significant lifestyle change occurred during Covid, and there seems to be reluctance to replicate this level of change in other areas despite high levels of concern for the climate crisis.
There is nearly a feeling that the climate crisis needs to be addressed urgently, but ‘not now, and not by me’, especially not when life is tough enough after Covid and amidst higher cost-of-living. 7 in 10 are cutting back spending as a result of rising energy bills, with nearly 7 in 10 agreeing (and 1 in 4 agreeing strongly) that there is still time left for us to reverse the effects of climate change. Again, this suggests the view that ‘it’s important, but there is still time…we’ll get to it once we climb this hill’.
By taking this view, consumers are, in many ways, essentially putting the onus on businesses and government to lead the way. Under pressure and with low level of willingness to make significant lifestyle changes, consumers are turning especially to brands to help lead them in being more sustainable. 4 in 5 agree that they are expecting this. Struggling to make it up the mountain, it’s not surprising that consumers are looking for this help.
How can brands help consumers live more sustainably? It is a recurring theme these days.
With cost of living remaining higher, anything to do with affordability, incentives, and discounts will turn heads, while information detailing the impact of products and services on the environment will help consumers make purchasing decisions more easily.
No brand seems to own this space, and there are opportunities for brands who successfully navigate it to differentiate themselves from competitors and help drive societal change at a time when it is badly needed. The travel and food industries seem especially well-positioned to do this, given the reluctance of many to reduce their flying and meat consumption.
Brands do need to be mindful of their position in this space with claims of ‘greenwashing’ that can circulate easily across the media. Younger ages are especially mindful of this, with 3 in 5 of those aged 18-34 claiming to have switched products or brands due to sustainability concerns. This strongly suggests that while significant lifestyle change is not likely without being forced into it, consumers are willing to at least switch from one brand to another if they think it is helping them live more sustainably.
We remain in an extraordinary situation where urgent, radical change is needed to help minimise the effects of climate change as much as possible. The general public seems to be aware of this. However, looking up at the mountainous peak in the distance, wearied from the Covid pandemic, and under pressure from the cost-of-living crisis, much help is still needed to help them climb it.
Otherwise, just like the wolf in the Sword in the Stone, we may see consumers start to pass out.