Words are important indicators of what we are thinking and how we are feeling. Recent Oxford English Dictionary “words of the year” suggest a growing public anxiety about the environment and the need for change, but do we need to change our way of thinking to actually drive different outcomes?
2020: Too Complex for a Single Word
In November 2020 the Oxford English Dictionary officially gave up on having just one “Word of the Year“, citing the unprecedented changes in attitudes and circumstances. Read more here.
With some words (notably “pandemic”) increasing in usage by more than 57,000% over previous years you could be forgiven for hoping that 2021 might lead us into calmer waters. That would be a mistake. There are significant trends in those lists of words that have not gone away.
As an example, the 2019 OED word of the year was “climate-change”. In 2018 it was “toxic”. “Carbon-neutral” and “carbon-footprint” featured in 2007 (UK) and 2006 (US) respectively. In fact after the seemingly trivial early years commencing in 2004 with “chav”, followed by “sudoku” and “bovvered”, words relating to the environment, government, protest, society and economics have dominated the list.
What’s notable though is that the words typically relate to issues, not solutions. They are what concerns us, not what we are doing about it.
Our response to these issues and concerns can be orthodox (assume that a combination of policy, economics, society and science will sort everything out) or heterodox (decide that some of those institutions are built on flawed, self-interested or even destructive principals, so require more radical change and re-alignment).
This latter mode is associated with disruptive economic theories and their implications for ecology and society, which will be covered in later blogs, but for now let’s consider where heterodox thinking might take us, starting with some assumptions:
- Changing individual behaviour is critical to becoming more sustainable – in particular our direct and indirect consumption of raw materials and our attitude to waste.
- People are social and their behaviour, driven by a complex interaction of things that change rapidly (influences and opinions) and those that change slowly if at all (habits, culture, traditions and beliefs), is not entirely rational or predictable.
- Socio-economic factors which affect behaviour are complex, evolving and heavily influenced by policy, media and by highly visible brands or individuals perceived to have particular knowledge or resonance.
- Our current focus on having “more”, “new”, “latest” and “best” is accelerating already unsustainable resource use, emissions and e-waste to landfill
While orthodox thinking on sustainability might lead us towards socio-economic factors (such as taxation or celebrity green ambassadors) to drive change, heterodox thinking suggests that this will be ineffective because of embedded self-interests in the systems. Instead it inclines us towards giving the individual direct feedback on their personal impact and encouraging “flood up” from the consumer rather than “trickle down” from the influencer.
Breaking the Habit
It’s not by chance that businesses often refer to the public as either “customers” (those who purchase from habit, i.e. by custom) or as “consumers”.
If we can build on the undoubted concern with a very real illustration of what an individual’s footprint is like, how it can be reduced and what it means for the planet we can begin to drive more positive engagement at the heart of the problem – the person making the decision on whether and what to buy.
This is exactly the model we use at Px3 with our carbon footprint assessments for organisations; measure, inform through illustration, then use real, contextualised information to identify and encourage change.
And crucially when people’s decisions change, then their purchasing and voting powers flow upwards to influence those who govern them, supply them and market to them. If we increase knowledge and accountability we cut through the greenwash and self-interest to something that needs to be proved in order to be true. And the media have become increasingly willing to expose forces that seek to undermine change in their own self interest, such as the recent dubiously-sourced report on electric vehicles.
Reducing raw materials use, packaging, distribution and waste, while also increasing longevity, options for repair, upgrade and re-purposing should all become the default, simply because an informed buyer (whether personal or corporate procurement) will demand those as a minimum.
In 2021 we need alternative, heterodox thinking to turn the existing influencer model on its head.
No longer should brands determine what is on-trend and encourage us to want ever increasing output through endorsement and advertising. Instead an increasingly sceptical public should be encouraged to ask why something needs to be replaced rather than repaired and to hold those disposable elements of the market in contempt as no longer fit for purpose.
Maybe “heterodox” is unlikely to top the list in 2021, but if we can reverse the influence then the compound word of the year could be “customer-led”.
And even if we can’t achieve that milestone, if you want to be a leading brand in 2021, your green credentials had better stand up to external audit because there’s going to be a lot more questions and scrutiny from an increasingly sceptical public.
About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3
Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies. Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.