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Facing the climate crisis as Citizens, not Consumers


27 August 2020 Community

The Consumer will never solve the climate crisis. So, how can businesses build agency in people as Citizens?

About the author of this post: Andy Galloway is a Clim8 investor and works at New Citizenship Project, a think tank and consultancy working with organisations of all kinds to develop ways to involve people as Citizens rather than treating them as Consumers. Opinions are his own.

Citizenship isn’t a new idea when it comes to climate change. Many people have articulated the need for collaboration, participation and collective effort from individuals, businesses and governments in order to reach our climate goals. And yet, when it comes to creating impact for the environment, many organisations still revert back to doing things for people as Consumers, rather than actively involving people as Citizens in the process.

Whilst the world of sustainability talks about Citizens and the world of business talks about Consumers, there will always be a tension that limits what we can achieve – but there is a solution, and it could start with the very businesses we’re investing in through Clim8.

Understanding the Consumer

Our world is dominated by the overarching story that the only way we can participate in society or create change is through our consumption. What was initially a liberating shift from the ‘Subject’ narrative that prevailed prior to the two world wars, has now permeated through all aspects of our involvement in society and become an identity construct which, especially for our climate, is proving ultimately unsustainable.

Every day, we are bombarded by commercial messages reinforcing extrinsic values of consumption, power and competition, reminding us that what we consume is the primary driver of our identity. ‘Consumer behaviour’ is consistently referred to by companies when deciding what products to develop and is even used as an excuse for inaction.

To help illustrate how this Consumer narrative manifests itself in our everyday lives, have a go at this quick exercise:

Think of the last advert or commercial message you saw (or go to a website right now and find one) and look at the table below. In which column does it position you as the receiver?

I’ll bet that for most, it was in the middle.

There are gravitational pulls from governments and organisations back towards the Subject and forward towards the Citizen – but overall, it’s clear that we’re living in a Consumer society.

Why is that a bad thing?

Direct extraction, production and consumption are well known to have massive carbon footprints in ‘Consumer industries’ such as textiles and food. While these are societal norms, the extent to which the ‘Consumer’ can effect change will only ever be through changes in consumption, which is likely limited to the privileged few and subject to market forces which prevent large-scale shifts.

When we think of people as Consumers, it is easy to accept the conventional wisdom that people are selfish, lazy and materialistic. After all, Consumers only do what is easy, not what’s needed. They take small actions, not big ones. They act as individuals, not as a collective.

Ultimately, when it comes to solving the climate crisis, the values of the Consumer are fundamentally opposed to the values we need.

But, by nature we are Citizens, not Consumers. We are wired for community, not consumption. We are collaborative and empathetic creatures who can and want to work together to make things better. We’ve seen this in times of crisis – just look at the swathes of people signing up to be NHS Responders or join mutual aid groups during the coronavirus pandemic. As Citizens, we step into our power and work together to make things better, as shown through movements like the Youth Climate Strikes.

The problem is that our capacity to meaningfully contribute in this way is helped or hindered by the systems, structures and at root the narratives we surround ourselves with.

When those systems and structures constantly reinforce consumerism, we adopt the mindset of the Consumer, and over time, it sticks. This is a vicious cycle which we need to break.

What can businesses do?

Businesses need to deliver sustainable solutions with people – not just for them. Whether a business has an environmental mission or not, we can all start building the Citizen narrative in our own ways.

1. Start with belief in people

As we’ve seen, the Consumer will never solve the climate crisis, so we need to believe that there is another option. We need to believe that whilst companies might have the knowledge, expertise and experience to deliver sustainable solutions, they don’t necessarily hold all the answers. People want and need to have a deeper, more meaningful role than just accepting an off-the-shelf solution delivered to them.

When addressing business challenges – whether we’re working in sustainability or not – that belief can be acted on by changing our starting point. Reframing our starting point from ‘people want to buy stuff’ to ‘people can and want to get involved in more ways’ is not only a more interesting place to take your business but will also contribute to the changing narrative of our entire society from Consumer to Citizen, and therefore towards climate action. For example, Brewdog have embraced this approach by genuinely involving their customers in every aspect of the business, from production to ownership.

2. Talk Citizen

Language is a powerful thing. Research shows that even when we are temporarily primed as Consumers through language, we are less likely to take action for a cause or trust others to do so. Even when we do buy sustainable products or switch to a renewable energy provider, if we do it for reasons that reinforce the importance of things like image, cost or conformity, we’re more likely to make decisions in future that also stem from those values.

To break this cycle, we need to change the way we communicate with and talk about people. No matter what we’re selling, we need to promote messages of purpose, community and citizenship, rather than just marketing the product as trendy or a way of making or saving money. By doing so, not only will people buy the product, but they’ll also buy into something bigger and have the agency required to get involved in other ways.

3. Become a platform

Once we see people as active agents for change and have appropriately adjusted how we communicate with them, the next natural step is to get them involved in whatever it is that we are doing. If you see people as more than Consumers, then the chances are they will do more than just consume.

Becoming a platform means finding ways for people to contribute in more ways than just by buying a product; it offers opportunities to do things through and with Citizens, rather than just for them.

Here are some thought-starters for how businesses might open up this space for participation:

  • Tell stories: How might we offer a channel that allows people to share stories of their involvement with our organisation? For example, through a guest blog like this one!
  • Gather data: How might our community gather and share data to help with our mission?
  • Share connections: How might we inspire our community to spread our work through their networks?
  • Contribute ideas: How might we genuinely open up the challenges we face to get more ideas from more people?
  • Give time: How might we offer meaningful ways that people can use their time, skills and experiences to help us achieve our shared mission?
  • Learn skills: How might we help people learn and share their relevant skills so that more people can contribute?
  • Crowdfund: How might we create a new product or service that could be funded and part-owned by our community?

Not all of them will be right for every company, but I guarantee that everyone can find a way to use at least one of them to make their organisation more participatory and ultimately, reject the narrative that all we want to do is consume.

The actions explored in this blog won’t change things overnight and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of us all doing our bit. On the contrary, by shifting from doing things for or to people towards doing things with people, there is a really exciting opportunity for businesses – including but not limited to those we’re investing in through Clim8 – to help create the conditions for more of us to take action for climate both individually and collectively.

This shift is all about reimagining the role of people. So, with a nod to the immortal words of JFK: ask not what you can do for Consumers, ask what Citizens can do with you.

Would you like to do more as a business or a citizen for our environment? The Clim8 app, the platform for sustainable investments, is launching soon. Register your interest to get early access to the app.

Investments of this nature carry risks to your capital. Investing in private equity involves a high degree of risk. Please invest aware. Please note this information is for illustrative purposes only and it must not be construed as investment advice