An inversely proportional relationship
Environmental organizations and climate experts agree that the year 2023 (even if only because of the summer) is shaping up to be the hottest year in history, or at least since we’ve begun recording temperatures using modern methods.
Most also agree that human activity is responsible for global warming. The few individuals who continue to be climate-change skeptics after such a year will certainly number among the most intransigent.
The consequences of climate change have become increasingly catastrophic. Extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent: torrential rains, floods, tornados, droughts, forest fires, etc. We watch helplessly and in desperation as nature relentlessly unleashes its fury.
While much of the reaction to these apocalyptic events could be described as mere handwringing, these events raise pressing questions.
What can be done? Who can really do something about this? How can we transcend the political constraints that bog down all attempts at concrete and immediate action, whether at COPs, United Nations assemblies or the initiatives proposed by organizations fighting for the cause?
When think about who in society can actually fight climate change, businesses and governments immediately come to mind. If they are willing to get involved, they are the ones with the resources and influence to act.
But we are also interested in citizens/consumers. Because if everyone adopted a lifestyle with a lower carbon footprint, this collective action would make a significant contribution to whatever institutions were doing.
For the past several years, we have been measuring how much Canadians agree with the following statement:
“In my daily life, I do several small concrete things to reduce my impact on the environment.”
In 2023, one in four Canadians (26%) “strongly agree” with such an assertion. (We only count people who strongly agree because, when it comes to behavioural issues that imply social acceptability, answers such as “somewhat agree” are unconvincing.)
This percentage, while significant, is far from a majority of the population.
Interesting, too, is the variability in this indicator from one year to the next, as clearly illustrated in the following graph:
This graph suggests that when the mood of consumers is positive, they are more inclined to incorporate more “green” practices into their daily lives, whereas when they become more cautious or worried, they tend to abandon them.
The 2008-2009 recession may have technically ended in 2009 but it haunted the mindset of consumers for several years thereafter, prompting them to be more financially prudent.
Our studies at the time indicated that consumers felt that they had not been subject to a “normal” or “usual” type of recession, that the world had changed, become more complex, uncertain, that they were losing their grip on their lives to dark forces over which they had no control.
These feelings have only strengthened since.
The mood of consumers was far from good. Financial prudence became the order of the day and, in such a context, environmental protection dropped down on the list of people’s priorities. Personal finances and maintaining their lifestyle became their primary focus and concern about the environment waned.
However, after a few years of caution and the advent of a period of marked enthusiasm for consumption and a more positive consumer outlook, “green” behaviour again became more of a priority.
But, from 2020 on, the pandemic, rising inflation and interest rates, and new and bigger financial pressures have once again pushed ecological behaviours lower on the scale.
One way to verify this hypothesis, which associates the mood of consumers with their ecological behaviour, is to compare the curve in the previous graph and its synchronicity over time with that of the next graph, which deals with consumer attitudes to innovation and consumption.
These two graphs measure very similar trends – between enthusiasm for innovation and consumption and trying to adopt the greenest lifestyle possible. The differences are not large, but, the trends are moving in the same direction.
It seems that when consumers are more focused on their personal finances and the threats to their lifestyle, environmental protection tends to get overlooked. It’s as if they have their hands full managing their financial stress and are unable to deal with any more complexity in their lives.
On the other hand, in another study on the same subject conducted in May 2023, but only in Quebec (n = 1000, but on these issues the differences are never very great between Quebec and English Canada), one in two individuals stated that they have a very important role to play in the fight against climate change (49% fell between 9 and 10 on a 10-point scale of importance).
While they ranked businesses and governments first in order of importance, they feel that they also have a big role to play.
It is interesting to compare the latter 49% of consumers who take personal responsibility in the fight against climate change with the 26% of Canadians who say they take action in their daily lives.
The discrepancy clearly indicates that there are many who would like to contribute to the fight, but who do not really know how to do so. Or for whom the solutions are inaccessible (such as taking public transportation when you live in the suburbs and have two children to drive to daycare before going to work. Yes, you are polluting and contributing to traffic congestion, but what’s the alternative?).
In fact, when Canadians are asked what specific action they are taking to reduce their environmental impact, recycling and composting come first, with nearly three in five (57%) saying they do this.
For all other actions, the proportion of consumers falls significantly.
What is striking about this data is the large proportion of individuals who say they could take these actions but are not doing them right now ("Yes, I'm ready to do that").
We have not investigated the reasons for this inaction but clearly work is needed to get people to act.
That is how Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, opened the summit on the fight against climate change on September 20 in New York.
The time for action has come. The appeal was addressed to everyone, mainly to governments but also to companies, brands, institutions, citizens and consumers – everyone has been summoned to meet this ultimate challenge facing humanity.
Large organizations have the expertise and resources to act.
But as the data presented in this article indicates, citizens/consumers live in somewhat of a fog when it comes to the concrete action they can take to contribute to the cause.
As we have suggested in several of our previous articles, there is an opportunity for brands, companies and institutions to raise public awareness about the concrete action individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, to invite them to get involved in initiatives that would mobilize them to act…
To propose actions and projects, to galvanize the public and their users, while supporting these initiatives with the necessary resources.