Global Trends 2020

Everyone and no one: the question of environmental responsibility

The interplay between the measures needed to address the climate emergency and our personal values and actions – or lack of them – makes the implications for businesses and government fraught with contradictions. The challenge is that the public are very keen for government and businesses to act, but feel they personally cannot make much of an impact.

Everyone is waiting for someone to do something. We expect our government to show leadership to bring us back from the brink of disaster, but at the same time we value our independence and personal freedom to do what we like and go where we like more than ever. We expect businesses to do their bit, but we don’t trust them to put the environment first.

International brands such as H&M, Volkswagen and Nestlé have been criticised for advertising that misleads consumers about the environmental merits of their products. We are prepared to change our own habits, but not always at the expense of convenience and ‘living for the moment’. But therein lies the problem – this is the moment, this is our last chance, and we’re currently squandering it. Running parallel to the mounting concern about the future of our planet, we have placed more value on pleasure-seeking and escapism.

When it comes to environmental responsibility, society will need to recognise that it’s actually up to everyone and anyone, and quickly. Collaboration is key – working together towards a shared goal is particularly important when it comes to super wicked problems that require complex solutions.

The challenge will be trying to build a shared understanding of the issues. We know that where people are involved in developing solutions they are more inclined to accept decisions, and those decisions can better represent diverse groups of stakeholders. The challenge is how this can be achieved at a societal level over a relatively short timescale implied by net zero targets.

Many brands are competing to win the hearts and minds of consumers, but similarly government needs to encourage less overconsumption generally. This is not an easy ask, and may well fall on deaf ears for the millions of people tired of environmentalism around the world.

Moving forward will require integrity from businesses and consistent leadership from government. Meanwhile, consumers will have to be more honest with themselves about what they are willing to sacrifice for the greater good – or have choices forced on them.

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