Can we build back greener at no personal cost?
Reaching Net Zero requires a shift of focus from incentivisation to include more purposeful strategies
It is difficult to see how we can achieve Net Zero without hard choices and a reduction in the availability or quality of the products and services that we have learnt to know and love. Enjoying foreign travel, eating meat, driving cars and so on are all things that we may have to learn to forego or at least reduce if we are to meet Net Zero targets.
There is understandable political sensitivity about this. It is speculated that a recent government sponsored behavioural science paper on how to achieve Net Zero was published and then rapidly withdrawn due to the discrepancy between the notion that we can transition to net zero without sacrificing the things we love and the requirement in the guidance for “significant behavioural change”. So just how can we facilitate behaviour change when people clearly enjoy what they currently do so much?
Simona Botti has done a great deal of work in the area of undesirable choices – which seems highly relevant for sustainability behaviours. She found that when we are making choices between undesirable options, we tend to dislike making the choice and have a decline in our happiness as a result. Also, importantly, when people are making a choice (compared to when consumers have the choice made for them) – they are less satisfied with the outcome.
A good example is from the area of household goods such as cleaning products. A brand may have a limited number of options available when selling more environmentally friendly options:
Premium pricing is used to raise monies to fund brand purpose activities (e.g. tree planting)
The product formulation / packaging is degraded in some way to have lower environmental impact
The product ‘activation’ is designed in a way that is more environmentally friendly (e.g. one time purchase refillable bottle / sachets of power for refill)
Arguably none of these choices particularly incentivises consumers relative to their current choice. And yet each of these involves significant investment for the brand to source materials, set up production lines, manage logistics, develop marketing and so on.
Similarly for a government body this might be encouraging recycling, composting of food waste, or taking public transport. None of these maybe particularly appealing to broad swathes of the population.
Yet brands and public sector bodies are increasingly mandated to make these sorts of changes whilst people are often disinclined to change their behaviour and select the less desirable choices that are offered to them. So how can this be addressed?
Of course, classical marketing activity can be characterised as using incentivisation or ‘reward-based’ strategies – which would indicate replacing the incentive in some way. For example, technology can help to offset deterioration in our experience. This might mean fitting buses with wi-fi thus making them more comfortable. Or using advances in bio-chemical engineering so that environmentally friendly shampoo has little or no decline in performance. In many instances this may well result in positive outcomes. Incentives have a role to play and will continue to do so.
Nevertheless, it looks inevitable that there will be downsides of achieving Net Zero. Surely at some point there has to be a reduction in our happiness. How do we deal with these hard choices?
How we handle hard choices
We have written previously about the importance of sense, or meaning-making, and the way that this is a fundamental human need that we have. We can extend this analysis by reviewing a paper by Baumeister and colleagues who make the distinction between happiness and meaningfulness.
Happiness: The authors assume that happiness, at its most basic level, reflects a set of natural biological needs to do with survival and reproduction. All animals have basic motivations that propel them to pursue these needs and it is their satisfaction that results in positive feeling states. Or, of course, when those needs are thwarted, negative feelings arise.
On this basis, ‘affect balance’ depends on whether our basic needs are satisfied; so in common with other animals, our happiness can depend on whether we generally get what we want and need. In other words, an incentive based strategy.
Meaning: If happiness is natural, Baumeister and colleagues argue that meaningfulness, by contrast, may well depend on culture. All cultures use language, enables us to use and communicate meaning. We have an extraordinary range of concepts that underlie language, which, as we have discussed previously, are rooted in networks of meaning.
These are developed over generations, with each new person learning most of these meanings from the group. Assessing the meaningfulness of our lives therefore uses the purposes, values, and beliefs that imbued in our culture. In this way, meaning is far more linked to our cultural identity than is happiness.
Of course, meaningfulness and happiness are often correlated, they have a great deal in common. But, Baumeister argues through an ingenious number of experiments, we can see that they are separate mechanisms.
People can sacrifice personal pleasure in order to participate constructively in the greater wellbeing of society. While we can use money to achieve satisfaction, the core of happiness remains that of having immediate needs and wants satisfied. As such, in their words, ‘The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity’.
The value of meaning
If we are to effectively find our way to Net Zero, this will mean a real focus on the future, working collectively on how to prevent the sort of catastrophic outcomes that a recent UN report has set out. But in addition, also using our imagination to find ways in which we can ‘build back better’.
On this basis, a huge advantage of meaningful thought is that it allows us to consider not only the present but past, future, and alongside physically and distant possibilities. In other words, a ‘purposeful strategy’ means we are only limited by the scope of our imaginations.
By contrast, happiness, as a subjective state, purely exists in the present moment. At most, the authors argue, happiness may incorporate a degree of our past into the present – but even then most people would not report high life satisfaction on the basis of a good past if they were currently miserable.
We may live meaningful but less happy lives but given this involves working toward a future goal (e.g. avoiding ecological disaster), then the future outcome is much desired despite the less pleasant day-to-day experience. Meaningfulness therefore often involves our lives beyond the present, integrating future and past.
Having a distinction between happiness and meaningfulness is essential to allow us to think clearly and carefully about sustainability. It allows us to deal more effectively with the inevitable chasm that will open up in terms of our ability to have our needs met in the way as we have been used to historically. As the drive to Net Zero bites, ‘incentivisation’ marketing strategy and policy will likely continue to be important but on its own will only take us so far, as it gets ever harder to disguise an increasing array of undesirable choices.
We argue that a fundamental shift of focus is needed. Instead of only engaging consumers in terms of incentivisation and happiness, we need marketing and policy that is organised around ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’. We need to move from immediate satisfaction of our needs to something where we can consider the greater purpose of our behaviours. To deliver on this we need to connect behaviours with the purposes, values, and beliefs of our cultural identities.
This is similar to a topic we have talked about previously - the way many of the challenges that the world faces today need ‘we-thinking’ – where we operate collectively for the long-term communal good.
But just what are the mechanisms we can draw on as behavioural scientists to help deliver this? We argue that a key opportunity here is that of ritual - and it is to that we turn next week.