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IPPR Consumer Power report

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

The Institute of Public Policy Research has just published the results of deliberative workshop research on public responses to climate change. See the coverage in yesterday’s Guardian or download the IPPR report itself here. The work draws on the Values Modes analysis as championed by Pat Dade at Cultural Dynamics.

There’s much in this report that is good. Particularly the calls for tougher government interventions: upfront subsidies for solar panels and reductions in stamp duties; continued increases in taxation of cars with higher emissions and subsidies for the most fuel-efficient cars; increases in the cost of air travel, generating revenues to improve the alternatives.

Great. But these useful things seem to be there simply because they are so undeniably sensible – despite the underlying approach of the report, rather than as a result of it.

The research focuses on the all-important ‘Now people’  – the ‘uberconsumers’ who tend to be indifferent to environmental concerns – especially when these are framed as environmental concerns. As the report states:

“Now People seek psychological rewards in status, fashion, success, and the esteem and recognition of others. They tend to have a high level of motivation to consume, and their prominent position within social circles makes them drivers of fashions and trends… For this reason they are often the target of marketing campaigns.”

Recurrent responses amongst groups of the public drawn from this ‘values mode’ included the perception that government “could be using the issue [climate change] as a means of increasing taxation”; they highlighted the “ineffectiveness of adopting small lower-carbon behaviours when others were still emitting elsewhere”; they reported feeling resentful that “previous requests to do more for the environment… had made them feel guilty about their lifestyles.”

All this is unremarkable – though it usefully serves to further confirm what the social psychologists have been telling us for a long time: the values and life-goals that drive the pursuit of status, fashion, success, and the esteem and recognition of others, are antagonistic to the emergence of environmental concern. For further discussion on this antagonisim, download WWF’s recent book, Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity.

But here’s the crucial question: how do we respond to this understanding?

There are two possible responses:

(1) Take public resistance to moving beyond the “pursuit of status, fashion, success, and the esteem and recognition of others” as something that will never change, and work to ‘sell’ pro-environmental behaviours on the basis of these values (using the same techniques that marketers use to sell anything else).

This approach leads to many of the IPPR recommendations, like: “an overriding perception was that when making a purchase, cost is a more important consideration than environmental impact “; “[f]ocus on saving money now” in designing climate-change communications. It also suggests that “sustainable products and behaviours” should be continuously recreated into “objects of desire”.

Alternatively;

(2) Work to bring other values and life-goals (what social psychologists call self-transcendent and intrinsic values) to the fore.

Here’s my balance sheet on the pros and cons of each of these two approaches:

(1) Work with today’s dominant consumerist values

Pros:

(i) May provide a basis for more easily motivating pro-environmental behaviour where this can be shown to coincide with a person’s pursuit of status, fashion, success, and the esteem and recognition of others.

Cons:

(i) More difficult behaviours are more difficult to motivate on this basis. There is empirical evidence for this in social psychology studies, and this is corroborated by the results of the IPPR study, which finds, for example, on holidaying at home:

“Very few discussions suggested that participants could be persuaded to stop taking holidays abroad.”

(ii) Worse, deploying this approach serves to reinforce those very values that we know are antagonistic to the emergence of wider social and environmental concern. This approach may represent a good way of winning particular carefully-chosen battles, but it simultaneously serves to undermine the legitimacy of those values upon which the war will ultimately need to be won.

Can appeals to self-interest really provide the basis for building widespread public acceptance of the range of necessary govnerment interventions that the report lays out? How is public support for increases in the cost of air-travel to emerge from appealing to anxieties about looking good and saving money?

(iii) Deploying these approaches risks ‘rebound’. The IPPR report acknowledges this, suggesting that:

“Communications that focus solely upon financial reasons for behaviour change could be undermined by a ‘rebound effect’ whereby people will spend the money they have saved on other, potentially high carbon, purchases, such as flying… To prevent this effect, it may be necessary to ensure that communications refer to the need to reduce ‘carbon pollution’ or use humour to satirise high carbon behaviours.”

This is quite right, but seems to depart from the insistence that communications should focus on saving money rather than building acceptance of the importance and legitimacy of working together to tackle problems like climate change.

(2) Work to bring helpful values to the fore

Dominant societal values emerge as a result of the way in which public institutions, policy and political debate shape social norms. These can therefore be engaged to build social norms around more helpful values (altruism, benevolence, a sense of community, of personal growth, connection to place etc.)

Pros:

(i) This approach is not contigent upon trying to exploit those areas of coincidence between pro-environmental behaviour and appeals to economics, status or fashion. It is thus, by its very nature, applicable across the whole gamut of pro-environmental behaviours.

(ii) This approach will be needed to instill public support for – and active demand for – not just government intervention on environmental issues, but a wide range of other pro-social policies. Organisations working on climate change can therefore begin to find new grounds for coalition with a wide range of other pro-social and pro-environmental initiatives.

(iii) The dangers of rebound are minimised – because the values that are reinforced in the course of people adopting one particular behaviour will tend to motivate them to generalise pro-environmental concerns across other behaviours.

(iv) Such campaigns begin the process of instilling those values that ultimately represent the only credible basis for engaging the social and environmental problems that we confront. We should start sooner rather than later.

Cons:

(i) It requires hard work in building new coalitions and urging political leadership.

_________

But perhaps we can have both approaches? Indeed, IPPR seem to suggest that this might be possible. The authors write that by choosing to focus on the values modes or marketing approach: “we do not seek to reject other approaches based on attempting to achieve a fundamental shift in values across society away from consumerism.”

I disagree. To the extent that communications and campaigns around climate change appeal to consumerist values they will serve to increase public and political resistance to building responses on alternative values. Put another way, they serve to undermine the ‘deep frames’ that are needed. This point has been discussed at length on this blog – see, for example – Joe Brewer’s recent contributions on this site.

Tom CromptonIPPR Consumer Power report