New WWF report: ‘Weathercocks and Signposts’

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

A new WWF report, Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads, critically reassesses current approaches to motivating environmentally-friendly behaviour change. Current behaviour-change strategies are increasingly built upon analogy with product marketing campaigns. They often take as given the ‘sovereignty’ of consumer choice, and the perceived need to preserve current lifestyles intact. This report constructs a case for a radically different approach. It presents evidence that any adequate strategy for tackling environmental challenges will demand engagement with the values that underlie the decisions we make – and, indeed, with our sense of who we are.

Download the report


I’ve also started a wiki, where you can say what you think of the ideas developed in the report.

Tom CromptonNew WWF report: ‘Weathercocks and Signposts’

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  • Jon Fuller - April 18, 2008 reply

    The arguments deployed in the WWF “Weathercocks and signposts” initiative remind me of those who claim that we cannot avert climate catastrophe without first changing the core economic system. The WWF initiative suggests we need first to change people’s ethical views.

    While there are arguments to support both views the brutal reality is that we are not going to change either before we crash through the 450ppm and 2 degree C barriers. Calamity will be upon us with very many millions dying in the world’s poorest countries.

    Yes, a new approach is needed – and is being pressed by BCCJ campaigners directly with government ministers. We need to convince big business and government ministers that those who expand polluting activities will be brought to trial for their contribution to the ensuing mass loss of life. We need Ministers to know that they will stand trial. When they believe that they won’t expand aviation or take other irresponsible steps that accelerate climate change.

    Climate campaigners need to change tactics and demand trial and retribution in all the material they produce and campaigns they undertake.

    We must stop pussyfooting around and speak with language that is appropriate to the scale of the threat.

  • Graham Game - April 21, 2008 reply

    Jon’s point is interesting but surely not practical -if we can’t even get anybody in government to be accountable for an ‘illegal’ war then I don’t see that we have any realistic chance of making decision makers legally responsible for eco-crimes.

    The WWF report is interesting, well written & a good piece of research, but said nothing at all new.
    We know that Green Groups need to change but of course they are stuck in a rut in terms of how they are funded. Environmentalists now need to focus more on practical solutions, and in helping people come to terms with their media-driven (especially if they read The Independent) eco-anxiety (yes I hate that word too!). A word I do like & have pioneered is Ecotherapy – I have spent years trying to convince the big Green Groups that they should get involved in this but they are simply not interested. Thankfully the health charity MIND are supporting Ecotherapy & everybody else will wake up to it eventually!! Tom – I would welcome the chance to work with WWF on Ecotherapy . . .

  • Eivind - April 22, 2008 reply

    Great report! A couple of questions:

    1) The report is convincing in arguing that green types should appeal to intrinsic values. Yet I am curious about how much “disentangling” there has been by researchers of the range of different intrinsic values and their impacts on behaviour. My suspicion (which perhaps says more about me than anything else) is that social/community intrinsic values (rather than environmental ones) are the ones that can really trigger change; it is not difficult to already spot a significant micro-trend in Western Europe for working less (and earning less) in order to spend more time with family. While I don’t see quite the same momentum behind e.g. animal rights movements, as an example of an “eco-intrinsic” cause.

    Through social intrinsic values, the tension between a lower footprint and values is reduced. But in comparison with intrinsic values of an environmental kind, social intrinsic values don’t act as a driver for meeting the consumption challenges we are facing. Which clearly make them less interesting for eNGOs to focus on.

    2) Amongst the recommendations, there was one that surprised me a bit, regarding the role of businesses. Tom, you seem to advocate that businesses should leave capitalist mindsets and extrinsic values (ever increasing profits) behind? I may have studied too much economics – in any case I have some liking for the competitive engine of the economy to drive human ingenuity; both because it helps increasing resource efficiency and for providing products that improve our quality of life. I would hope that it is possible to have a society where individuals give larger predominance to intrinsic values while business logic stays the same (and thus will be responding to new demands from customers, with a lower footprint).

  • James Goodman - April 22, 2008 reply

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the report. It makes some important and interesting points – that marketing ‘green’ products is playing the game by the same rules that got us into this mess and can support incremental and isolated change but not really the radical change that we need (crude paraphrase). It’s timely in that finally many businesses are starting to market sustainability and even compete on it – what a transformation in the supermarket sector for example. It took us a long time to even get that far, but a critique of the approach is fair.

    So I don’t think you can disagree with that. Nor do I disagree that revisiting our values would be a good thing. Jonathon Porritt has written about this, so has Satish Kumar, Tim Smit talks about it all the time. Some sort of secular spiritual revolution to reaffirm the timelessly human and leave behind the materialistic.

    The big question is, how do you do that? The report doesn’t say (the ‘practical steps’ are a bit of a misnomer I think) and that’s because nobody knows. So in the meantime, let’s get on with it.

  • Simon Ross - April 24, 2008 reply

    I’d concur that small changes aren’t enough. However, relying on human nature to improve is optimistic. I’d add a concerted drive to reduce the rate of population growth theough the universal provision of affordable contraception. There is massive unmet demand for family planning across the developing world. Such a programme is afforable, appealing to recipients and would have a dramatic effect on numbers. In the developed world, too, where the per capita environmental footprint is higher, we should be using fiscal and health policies to discourage reproduction instead of encouraging it. Moving to a declining global population, instead of the projected 40% increase, is the surest way of mitigating the unstoppable growth in environmental impact of economic development and the real threat to life from resource depletion and climate change.

  • Maya Forstater - May 8, 2008 reply

    [Sorry the first time I posted I messed up the html].

    This is a very interesting and timely report, and great that you are having this debate in public, rather than just internally within WWF.

    You cover some of the same arguments and questions that we looked at in “What Assures Consumers?”

    Some comments:

    1) I am not sure I am convinced that the world can be divided up neatly into people with intrinsic and extrinsic values orientations and that this correlates with their environmental footprints. Are these tendencies the deep seated roots of our behaviour, our emotions and our identity or are they things that can be prioritized and changed with ease?

    2) The recommendation that I really think is missing from your final chapter is something along the lines of ‘envision what a sustainable, comfortable lifestyle means’ and the steps we (consumers, government, business, technologists, enviromentalists) need to take to get there. Alex Steffen says it eloquently here.

    Without a validated, accepted consumer ‘wedge model’ which shows, the gap between where we are and where we need to be, the contribution that different solutions can make, how they all add up, and what that means for consumers, we are left with just tactics . And the temptation is then to focus on palatable ‘small changes’ or on the other hand on easy targets like yachts, 4×4s, convertibles and ‘ trophy homes’ which are out of the reach of most people anyway.

  • Jim Scott - May 9, 2008 reply

    I am delighted to see WWF exploring inclusive values, having been promoting these for a while through a series of ‘Boiling Point’ articles collated on our Movement for Survival microsite, in support of an on-line campaign to Value Life Itself Above all Else!, arising from 30 years of yogic practices. http://www. also extends the same thinking ‘On taking a positive approach to climate change’.

  • Reggie Tricker - May 10, 2008 reply

    Very interesting report – critiquing, in a timely manner, the way in which we are all engaged in promoting, enabling or otherwise supporting more environmentally friendly behaviour.

    I would, however, challenge certain prevalent messages within the report/study/thesis.

    Focus on marketing – I don’t think anyone working in the profession thinks marketing is the silver (or even golden) bullet to behaviour change. The UK Government Sustainable Development Strategy (unreferenced in the report, as on so many occasions, notwithstanding references to Tim Jackson’s work) includes marketing alongside other influences on behaviour change: taxes, figureheads, information, and incentives (to paraphrase the 4E’s framework).

    In combination with all these elements, what marketing does do is give people ‘permission’ to act in ways which are less denigrating to the environment. The social context in which they behave is more accepting of more environmentally-friendly behaviours, purely because marketing messages support these choices. The actions of politicians, too, can embolden people to come out of their “I’m an environmentalist but slightly embarrassed about it shells” and push forward with their lifestyles out in the open. They can set an example themselves to the people around them – colleagues, friends and family; and so the process continues. Who’d have looked down on someone with a carrier bag a year ago? I feel quite within my rights to do this now – advertising and the government are right behind it. No-one likes to be made to feel inferior, and so attitudes and behaviours change.

    The issue about rebound is an interesting one, and goes further. Who’s to say that if, as an act of environmentally-friendliness, when someone is not looking round a shop for something to consume they will not be engaged in more polluting activities – sitting at home in front of a plasma screen with a large burger, for instance. Accordingly, just because someone has cycled home instead of getting home more slowly by sitting in a traffic jam, they will spend the time saved on more environmentally benign activities (I think John Whitelegg put this idea forward).

    Surely contraction and convergence at an individual level – personal carbon rationing – which decreases over time, gets rid of the tendency to reallocate your carbon from where it is saved to where it can be spent elsewhere? People also need something to do with their lives – to spend their time on. In the world that we have built, what else is there to do? Are our towns and cities useful if consumption is not their primary purpose? I believe that increasingly, ‘no’ is the answer.

    On the issue of self-interest, it is true that marketing should actually alter people’s preferred “poles” about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. They can then get a personal positive feedback from an action that previously would have seemed to them like a sacrifice. This does involve a values change – getting fulfilment from saving the planet, rather than from the comfort of travelling to work in your personal living room (as Volvo once advertised their cars).

    Climate change has rather overshadowed all the other benefits from reduced car use – reduced noise, better air quality locally, better health and less obesity from active travel. People should be choosing less carbon-intensive choices irrespective of the impacts on climate change – they are more people friendly solutions (I suppose this is where intrinsic elements come in). But maybe people aren’t inclined to be people friendly any more than they are to be more environmentally (extrinsically) friendlier.

    Mayer Hillman, as I understand, has stated that people must learn to accept that sacrifice is necessary. Satish Kumar has also said we need to relearn what poverty is all about – being poor should not be stigmatised, in the sense of being the reverse of richness gained through material possessions. Poverty in the sense not needed material possessions is not a bad thing. Trying to tell people to sacrifice themselves and be more impoverished is not an easy marketing “sell”, though, or is it?

    Is environmentalism a political movement, or is it a religion? If the latter, are we allowed to discriminate against non-believers in the way environmentalists have become so accustomed? If averting climate change is an accepted goal of human society, then the answer is yes. But, as yet, it is still contested as only one goal among conflicting personal and societal ones.

    What the report doesn’t seem to address is the question of whether we should market crises, or whether it is better to market a positive vision of the future. Indeed, an implicit part of the report is that we should care about the long term future of humans or the planet; surely asserting this is the ultimate in moralising? Someone else’s vision might be to plan for the next 50 years with no interest in what lies further – either at an individual or planetary level. Who says that acting based on values related to the short-term isn’t an entirely reasonable course of action?

    The key behaviour change question the report does not address is the question of whether to have kids – as the root of all consumption and consumerism. People consume. Were population levels not expanding, the challenges for resource use and per capita climate change emissions would be proportionately less (as Simon points out). Or is this a too-sensitive issue to mention? If humans were the equivalent of cars or light bulbs, we’d be looking to charge them off the roads, or turn them out completely. But no-one can do that to us, we can only make that decision to reproduce (as an emotional/human need?) – or not – ourselves.

    On the motivations of environmentalists – surely this is about securing a long-term future where all types of suffering (human and natural) are obliterated?

    Policy diffusion in the professional world is a key barrier to approaching behaviour change consistently. Most people working in the profession will never read this report. There are lots of reports like this, many useful, some not. There are now numerous green websites, books and gurus. However, our policy frameworks actually are at least in the areas of buildings and transport – if repeated with marginal new insight.

    There are antagonistic policy drivers. On the one hand, marketing promotes marginal change; we’re on the brink, if we keep shuffling along, we won’t fall over the cliff. This doesn’t stop us dangling off the cliff, but also it does stop someone buying a crane to remove our bus to a safer location. The same is true of government spending. The business case for a substantial change is actually reduced by good-willed efforts to manage and get-by without more fundamental interventions. Marketing public transport to keep congestion levels ‘stable’ takes away the business case of having a super bus or light rail scheme to address total gridlock that might have occurred without the small scale behaviour changes brought about by marketing.

    Would we be better marketing highly unsustainable behaviours that would lead to more critical situations where politicians and governments would act? People themselves will only ever reach a dynamic equilibrium that is likely to be the most unsustainable level of operation that the system will allow without its self-destruction.

    Does this paper question the whole idea of education, as surely education is a form of marketing? Does education teach (and change values which can lead to more sustainable individual decision making) or does it just promote a consensus view amongst those who are not able to readily respond independently to the processes of education and opportunities for active debate and discussion?

    Marketing may provoke an antagonistic response amongst such people – only reinforcing a common and communal reaction against the policies trying to be delivered. In the same way as an unpopular Prime Minister of the day may fuel vocal and popular opposition against them.

    It is also true that marketing, through branding, removes the actual thing we are trying to do. The report makes this example through the Wattson. The private sector tends to raise the profile of its logo or corporate image above that of the service it delivers. We Hoover, we Wii, and we buy a FirstDay – not a bus ticket. We also Google (fortunately, for the authors of this report…).

    The report is intelligently written – sometimes too intelligently (quixotic and inimical are two examples, added to that the tiny footnotes!) – with Section 2 more interesting and provoking than the ‘alternative approach’ put forward in Section 3 (I agree with Maya that the intrinsic/extrinsic boundary is a tad theoretical). It has challenged my view of the use of marketing, though not changed my view – I already knew that marketing was not the sole mechanism to achieve change.

    Food for thought…

  • Chris Gough - August 16, 2008 reply

    The Environmental movement is not at a crossroads as is suggested in the report, it is standing still with it’s head buried so deeply in carbon and global warming it can’t or perhaps doesn’t dare to see that the root of all environmental ditruction is and always has been the wants and needs of our ever increasing population.A marketing approach to evoke such massive change with regard to the issues raised in the report is just too slow.We will simply run out environments to protect long before this will achieve any serious impact.The most effective marketing campaign should be based on educating all of the citizens of this world that we should choose to limit the size of our families. Yes having that third child should be as socially unacceptable as dropping litter.The WWF are as aware as the rest of us that the world’s population is at present effectively swamping any attempts to protect natural environments and combat climate change. To say the least I am thoroughly disapointed that an organization such as WWF that I have always held in such high regard is failig us all by choosing a safe political route and not adhering to its mission.

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