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Your customers say there is a climate emergency and want you to act

The intention-action gap gives rise to the opportunity for brands to step up and help their customers do better.

Climate emergency

GreenBiz photocollage

The largest opinion poll on climate change found two-thirds of people around the world believe we are in a "global emergency." Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between what people believe and what they do. As explored in this series of blogs, the intention-action gap creates an opportunity for brands and sustainability professionals to act.

Here are some insights from the UN Development Program (UNDP) poll of 1.2 million people in 50 countries, representing more than half of the world’s population. The survey was conducted between October and December. (See graph below.)

UNDP consumer survey

Strikingly, the study found that in every country surveyed, most people are very concerned about climate change. The U.K. and Italy came in at the top with 81 percent, the U.S. and Russia in the middle with 65 percent. Only one country scored below 55 percent: Moldova, with 50 percent.

The intention-action gap gives rise to the opportunity for brands to step up and help their customers do better.

The key finding is that the belief we’re in a climate emergency holds true across all countries:

  • during the pandemic,
  • across generations globally, and
  • most strongly for individuals with post-secondary education.

The poll results show that a generational divide exists, but it isn’t large. Younger people showed the greatest concern, with 69 percent of those aged 14 to 18 saying there is a climate emergency, while 58 percent of those over 60 agreed. A person’s level of education is the single most profound socio-demographic driver of belief in the climate emergency and need for climate action.

Young or old, if your target market has post-secondary education, the majority seek climate action.

I compared the UNDP findings to those of a just-released study in the U.S. by Brands for Good and the Harris Poll. While the two studies have different objectives, comparing the results provides useful insights.

  • The UNDP study seeks public opinion on climate change and policy solutions. The study asked about specific potential government policies, not about what individuals do in their day-to-day lives.
  • The Brands for Good–Harris Poll survey seeks to understand consumer intentions and actions towards sustainable lifestyles. It looks at nine indicators for sustainable living. It asked respondents specifically about the frequency of actions individuals take, rather than the level of their concern.

Looking at the two survey results, the first thing that is obvious is that actions lag concern.

UNDP found that 65 percent of Americans say we’re in a climate crisis, yet Brands for Good/Harris Poll found only 29 percent to 45 percent, depending on age range, saying they always or often try to behave in ways that protect the planet, its people and its resources.

Clearly this large concern-action gap needs to be closed. How? By increasing the likelihood of citizens taking regular actions for a more sustainable, climate-friendly lifestyle.

The comparison of the two polls shows that education is a key variable. UNDP found the respondent’s level of education to be the most profound driver of public opinion on climate change. In the U.S., the UNDP study found that 66 percent of people with post-high school education think we’re in a climate crisis. Brands for Good/Harris Poll determined that 42 percent of respondents with a four-year college degree will act more frequently in ways that "protect the planet, its people and its resources." This compares with 34 percent of respondents who have a high school degree or less.

The two studies also compared age ranges. Brands for Good/Harris Poll found the most responsive age for taking action is 25 to 44, whereas UNDP found their younger peers are slightly more concerned.

Mind the gap

The two studies confirm that citizens around the world share a strong interest in addressing climate change. But at least in the U.S., there is a major disconnect between concern and action.

Looking at the U.S. data, UNDP found 65 percent of Americans saying they are very concerned about climate change, yet Brands for Good and Harris Poll found only 34 percent to 45 percent of most age groups regularly take action. Furthermore, Brands for Good and Harris Poll found gaps between respondents’ intentions and actions across all nine indicators.

This means that an average of 20 percent to 30 percent of Americans are concerned we’re in a climate crisis but not actively addressing climate change and sustainability concerns in their daily lives. This supports results from earlier survey work we’ve undertaken and covered in this blog series.

This gap gives rise to the opportunity for brands to step up and help their customers do better.

Here are three examples of how brands help close the action gap.

1. Design low-carbon products and communicate clearly about what actions your brand is taking. Sneakers are a good example, with many brands making low-carbon shoes. For example, Ecoalf, Spain’s first B-Corp fashion brand, proudly uses recycled plastic and nylon in almost all of its designs and tells the customer exactly what goes into each product. Ecoalf reminds the wearer with a subtle stamp on the shoes and T-shirts, "Because There Is No Planet B."

At a slightly larger scale, Nike invites customers to follow its journey, step by step, towards net-zero emissions. Nike brings home the message by eloquently linking sports and climate change, enabling its customers to see themselves in the climate change equation. Evocative, smart, effective.

2. Help your customers use your products and services in the most energy-efficient, material-minimizing way as possible. Often, the largest part of a product’s carbon footprint occurs post-sale. It’s how customers use the product that matters.

This is not a new approach. For example, 19 years ago Levi’s launched its "Care Tag for Our Planet" campaign, which included changing the care instructions to recommend cold wash, promote line drying and donate garments when they are no longer needed. The Care Tag saved unimaginable amounts of energy to heat water. Other clothing brands followed Levi’s lead.

3. Show your customers the carbon footprint of the product. With this information, customers can make better decisions. For example, at the retail level COOP DK, the Danish cooperative grocery chain, provides customers with carbon estimates for their purchase as a way to help nudge better decisions. COOP DK is no small fry in Denmark — it represents a third of the nation’s grocery market.

At the product level, forerunner Oatly applies a carbon label as part of its brand positioning. Leon Restaurants announced a carbon-neutral veggie burger. They’ll soon be joined by Unilever, which committed to carbon labeling all 70,000 of its products.

Carbon footprint labels are relatively new, and too few products carry such footprint information to enable apples-to-apples comparisons. It is too soon to know how much disclosing product-level information will affect consumer decision-making. I expect more brands will embrace product carbon labeling. I look forward to testing the effectiveness of this disclosure in changing consumer behaviors.

What can your brand do?

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