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In this Climate Leadership article I speak to Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder of change agency Futerra, to discuss the importance of behavioural economics and how companies can tailor communications to drive climate action both internally and externally.
In this Climate Leadership series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practice, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. Find out more about Solitaire at the bottom of this article.
Please complete this short three-question survey to indicate what you'd like to hear from Solitaire during our upcoming webinar in April.
Rosie Helson (RH): Your background is in communications and creating change, but do you really think that the way businesses speak about climate change can inspire action?
Solitaire Townsend (ST): In short, absolutely. Our greatest playwrights, writers and changemakers have all used language to their advantage, from “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” - Mahatma Gandhi, to “I have a dream” – Martin Luther King, to “It always seems impossible until it’s done” – Nelson Mandela.
It’s difficult to deny the power of language as every business uses it to sell its products and services. Billions are invested into understanding the best methods of communication, particularly through the advertising industry; from framing, through to lexicon, and translations into different languages and cultures.
I am certainly not wedded to the word “sustainability,” nor “climate action.” If companies want to call it “managing our volatile supply chain in the face of climatic shock,” fine, if they want to talk about “creating brand loyalty and brand love with the purposeful millennials,” great.
RH: What about making use of visual tools like images, maps and symbols?
I am a bit of a geek about this topic.
Words are incredibly important, but they are just one part of how we communicate to each other. In advertising, a copywriter is paired with an art director to create words and pictures in perfect harmony for the greatest impact.
I would argue that most climate change communications are not working well.
Our role as businesses in society is to provide answers, solutions, improvements, innovations and betterment for our customers and consumers. We do not exist to make them afraid, despairing and apathetic – because apathetic consumers don’t take any action. Businesses should shine a light on solutions, and many businesses are beginning to wake up to that. That’s one of the reasons I would say businesses are right at the leading edge of the climate solutions conversation.
Futerra ran a global survey with Ipsos Mori and The Climate Group, looking at what the public is hearing from businesses, media and anyone else communicating about climate change. What we discovered is encouraging: more than 50% of the general public worldwide believe that we can and will solve climate change. However, we’ve got a real problem with the fact that 14% are now climate fatalists who believe that nothing can be done. A tiny proportion of people – 4% – are deniers, but they are a loud group.
We spend an enormous amount of our time communicating the problem in increasingly loud and shrill ways in reaction to the deniers, hence the vast majority of people - 70% - say they hear more about problems rather than solutions associated with climate change.
RH: I recently read a Huffington Post article, which said that too much solution-driven climate optimism could breed apathy, because everyone will think it’s already taken care of and therefore there’s no need to do anything.
ST: That’s such an extraordinary interpretation and is a basic misunderstanding of human psychology and behaviour change. We have really clear evidence that communicating about global, unmanageable, runaway climate change creates apathy, but there is no evidence that communicating about solutions to climate change creates apathy.
In fact, all of the psychological literature suggests that communicating about solutions generates enthusiasm, and even avarice, as in “Well if solutions to climate change are out there, maybe I should get involved, invest to make money, and teach my children to work in these industries, because I don’t want to be left behind.” Business has the power to create a gold rush towards climate solutions.
RH: Some industries are more visible than others, for example apparel. Are fashion companies making effective use of their public platform to help consumers to take climate action?
ST: There’s a wonderful Shakespeare quote from Henry V which is “We are the makers of manners.” I would say that the fashion and beauty industries are the makers of manners – they define aspirational lifestyles, they tell us every quarter what the look is. I wouldn’t underestimate the ripple effect that fashion companies can a have on culture – it goes beyond their consumers to news, politics and supply chains around the world.
We’ve been telling our clients for years that they have a brainprint as well as a footprint. Of course, their footprint must be managed from energy to packaging, supply chains, ethical sourcing, and waste. But they also spend millions, if not billions, on advertising, and their brands resonate in the brains of their consumers.
It’s encouraging to see fashion companies realising that “sustainability solutions provider” can be a powerful role for them and one that their consumers will connect with. VF Corporation, which owns North Face, Wrangler, and more, has committed to building a sustainability movement with its consumers. In Share Beauty with All, L’Oreal has a made a commitment that each of its brands will engage consumers in sustainable lifestyles. Kering, one of the big fashion houses that owns the likes of Stella McCartney and Gucci, has a commitment to make fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable.
All of these companies are working hard to figure out the best way to generate change: perhaps by creating the occasional slogan t-shirt, putting it on the catwalk, putting labels into clothing to explain what to do with it at the end, by enabling consumer take-back; perhaps by enabling their muses, models and actresses to speak. They’re only just beginning to unleash the creativity within their own industry to be able to speak to this.
I would say watch this space – you will be seeing a lot more from fashion and beauty brands on using their brainprint to affect change among their consumers and beyond.
RH: Do you think we’re making good use of behavioural economics with regards to business climate action? Do we need to support changemakers within companies more?
ST: Yes, we need to support the changemakers within companies.
Behavioural economics is certainly important. The original author of the Nudge philosophy recently received the Nobel prize. I would urge internal changemakers to learn how to change people not processes. I would recommend every sustainability manager become an expert in psychology – how individuals think, behaviour – how they act, and culture – how we collectively make change, rather than in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There are enough scientists out there doing that for us. There’s a wonderful reading list on behavioural economics.
The idea that sustainability is led and owned by a single individual – be that a sustainability manager or the CEO – is not doing us any good. Employees without “sustainability” in their title can feel a lack of permission to have this conversation. They feel like this is not their area of expertise, so they’re best off just getting on with what they know and hoping the sustainability manager will fix it. If your sustainability manager is seen as a sort of high priest of sustainability and no-one else is allowed to touch it, then we’ve got a problem. Sustainability managers need to be macro-managers rather than micromanagers – they act as catalysts for change inside organisations.
At Futerra, one of the things we help sustainability managers with is handing over control and power to others. The job of sustainability managers is to empower, train, and raise the capacity of other people. We also help them deal with the fact that some people might not do it the way that they do.
RH: So, how can sustainability managers communicate effectively to get internal teams on board?
ST: For this we need to look at people’s psychographics – how people see their place in the world - rather than demographics. Based on the work of Pat Dade who laid out typologies of prospectors, pioneers and settlers, there are three typologies of people when it comes to sustainability: the greens, golds and bricks.
- Greens are big-world thinkers who care about climate change, about what’s happening in countries far away, and are really motivated by that famous picture of the tiny earth.
- Golds are “me”-thinkers who act in the present without much thought for the past or future, who care about what others think of them and who are primarily driven by fashion, status and success.
- Bricks are small-world thinkers whose reality is their own home, workplace and the school their children go to.
It is possible to convince all three to take action on climate change, but the message needs to be delivered on different scales. The “bricks” will care more about air pollution on their street or recycling in their office, while the “golds” will be more likely to take action if it is going to make them look good in the eyes of others or further their career. The golds represent the majority of the population and especially those in senior management. If it is socially undesirable, a bit weird and alternative, or if it makes them look naïve and stupid, they won’t do it and there’s nothing you can do to make them.
You can tailor your communications to make climate action desirable, cool, modern, high status and smart for the golds, and locally relevant and about saving and safety for the bricks. It’s much easier to meet people where they are rather than trying to change who they are.
RH: How can internal changemakers maintain resilience?
ST: The Sunday Times reviewed my book The Happy Hero in the frame of a sustainability manager trying to survive their job. There are a few tricks to maintaining personal resilience:
- Optimism and maintaining your belief that this is solvable. That Nelson Mandela quote: “It’s only impossible until it’s done” has more than once been my survival mantra.
- Connection and community. We all have a need to belong to a group and if you’re in an organisation where you feel like you don’t belong, or you’re not listened to or you’re side-lined, that can erode your sense of self, your confidence, your happiness. So it’s absolutely crucial to create a community within your organisation. I don’t mean an army of people who you lead and tell what to do, I mean a community of peers, of empowered sustainability champions. Invite people to a “lunch and learn” on sustainability with a great speaker, and see who turns up from other departments. It’s really important to have those internal networks of support.
- Remember that you’re weird, and that’s a good thing. Not everyone thinks like you do so you need to package your message up to communicate with them on their level.
RH: What drives you and what would you personally like to achieve in the next five years?
ST: What drives me is that I absolutely love what I do, I get a massive kick out of it. I am not a martyr, I am not trying to do this for the greater good – all of that comes as part of it – but I really enjoy it, which is why I’ve been able to do it for 20+ years. I am super lucky that the thing that I love doing most in the world also makes the world a better place.
We will be hosting a webinar with Solitaire in late April (exact date TBC) to offer advice to sustainability professionals on how to convince senior management of the value of sustainability and climate action, and how to engage colleagues. Please complete this short three-question survey so we can tailor the webinar contents to your needs. Thank you.
About Solitaire Townsend
Solitaire has been trying to make the world a better place for nearly 30 years. As co-founder of the change agency Futerra, which uses the logic of sustainability strategy and magic of creativity for positive change, she advises governments, charities and brands like Danone, Lancôme and Vodafone. With 70 Futerrans now working in London, Stockholm, New York and Mexico City she admits that making the world a better place was a pretty good business plan. You can watch her TEDx talks online and read her in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Forbes and more, often as @GreenSolitaire. She was once even profiled in Harper’s Bazaar; but they didn’t let her keep the clothes. Solitaire was named “Ethical Entrepreneur of the Year” in 2008 and more recently was Chair of the UK Green Energy Scheme, a member of the United Nations Sustainable Lifestyles Taskforce and a London Leader for Sustainability. Her new book The Happy Hero was published October 2017 by Unbound.