This Monday as we approached our desks at Trajectory Towers there was a surprising new addition. As part of their Zero Plastic campaign, WeWork, our workspace provider, had placed splendid new water bottles on each of our desks to soften the blow of the removal of single-use plastics from our kitchen.
Recently I’ve been told that I needed to stop using plastic bottles, to be more conscientious about the environment, and to buy myself a metal bottle just like the one which turned up on my desk this morning, and yet I just never got around to it. However, the complete withdrawal of single-use plastics stripped me of any agency, with any discomfort this might have caused negated by exposing me to a superior alternative – the reusable bottle – for an objectively positive result.
It’s not that I was particularly attached to the old plastic cups, they were just there to be used and they were convenient, but just like that, my use of single-use plastics at the place where I spend 40 hours a week has been reduced dramatically.
In exploring societal attitudes toward pollution and climate change, we’ve previously identified the difficulty in drawing mainstream attention to environmental issues when consumers have far more immediate concerns to worry about. Throughout the early 2000s, concern for the environment and pollution grew among the UK population, however, the events of the financial crash of 2008 had a direct impact on the extent to which people in the UK viewed ‘Pollution/Environment’ as an important issue. People can only care about so much about so many issues, and it may be that people only begin to understand the impacts of their consumption when they start feeling it every day – when they can’t buy a good coffee, or when the city they live in becomes consistently, unsustainably hot – but by this time it is likely to be too late.
For businesses that feel that they have a responsibility to help create a better world, the question must be “how can we change behaviours before we reach this point?” In answering this question, however, its possible that an even more difficult question is likely to arise: “how can we change the behaviours of people who are not yet cognisant of the implications of their actions?”
As my own micro-drama shows, this might be much, much easier than it seems, and borrowing an example from another attempt to mitigate damaging consumption – Public Health England (PHE) and Drinkaware’s new initiative to reduce alcohol-related deaths – we can see the key to this challenge.
In unveiling the new initiative – simply encouraging middle-aged drinkers to have more alcohol-free days – PHE Chief Executive, Duncan Selbie, highlights the futility of “narking at people” about their damaging behaviours, saying, “What is the point in being at some distance in people’s lives and just telling them they are doing everything wrong? But if we can run towards them with something they find helpful, that’s got to be a good thing.”
Research is important, campaigns are important, and understanding the consequences of your consumption is important, but for many consumers this knowledge is still not enough; we have shown previously in relation to the introduction of new alcohol consumption guidelines that those with the best knowledge of guidelines were those most likely to surpass them
Consumers can’t just be told the problems, they need to be offered the solutions. In many cases this might involve the total removal of access to damaging consumption and the introduction of a beneficial alternative. Levies on plastic bags have led to a dramatic reduction in their use, but what if they were banned outright, and what if the supply chain could be changed so that the containers goods were shipped to retailers in – i.e. cardboard boxes – were designed with replacing bags in mind.
Consumers might be lazy and they might be stubborn, but they know a good thing when they see one. So show them a good thing and watch their behaviours change.