Sustainability it seems, has a relevance problem, which may seem surprising considering how it can make or break the future state of our world.
According to research, 71% of Asia Pacific (APAC) consumers
care about the environmental impact of their consumption, but struggle to prioritise sustainability over other needs. This paradox reflects a gap between consumers’ positive attitudes toward sustainability and actual behaviours.
The contradictory state of being is more common than we think too. In Accenture Song’s latest sustainability research, Our Human Moment
, approximately three in every five people globally do not strongly resonate with living sustainably.
And the barriers they face are relatable.
In APAC, rising costs of living and day-to-day priorities
are preventing people from being more eco-conscious. Additionally, Asian consumers–being the world's most populous and geographically diverse region–hold varying values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, identities, and aspirations. A poll
on attitudes towards sustainability revealed the discrepancy and personalised attitudes towards environmental issues, with 77% of Filipino respondents saying environmental issues are extremely important to them, but only less than a third (32%) from Singapore indicated the same.
While sustainability has become a business priority and continues to be despite volatile economic conditions, it has not become an equal priority for everyone, considering the extent of change and urgency that we need to act on.
Organisations and people simply aren’t aligned
In fact, executives have been hesitant to fully embrace sustainable business practices due to concerns over speed and reliability, as some believe that doing so comes at a cost to profitability
The reality is that those who continue to operate under "business as usual" and merely add sustainability measures into certain areas, such as supply chains, are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to deliver value.
Additionally, the technocratic advice that companies have relied on to approach sustainability–such as top-down initiatives to reduce carbon emissions by tweaking supply chains and operations–can disempower consumers as companies assume this approach connects people and can stimulate sustainable action. This mismatch between business and consumer views indicates that companies must focus on making sustainability more human versus expecting humans to become more sustainable from a long time ago.
It is time to recognise that every action of the sustainable value chain, such as the food we eat, how we travel or the clothes we wear, is decided by a human being. Climate initiatives, where consumers are not active participants, have alienated sustainability from the millions of humans who need to make those decisions. To drive climate action, sustainability must be made more personal, connected and tangible in people’s lives.
Making sustainability more human
Here are three ways companies can make sustainability more human so that their business can meet sustainability targets and people are inspired to move with them:
Firstly, acknowledge the various interpretations of sustainability and that they may not align with what your business thinks. Understand what sustainability might look like on a foundational level for your customers. For instance, in Japan, sustainability is about the small daily actions people take, such as sorting their trash correctly, not using their cars as much, saving energy, and being in harmony with their community and surroundings.
Telecommunications company NTT Docomo launched an initiative to help consumers collectively work towards carbon neutrality with an interactive platform that visualises their contributions and a community website that consolidated eco-friendly actions that people can take in their daily lives. The initiative gained local traction, becoming a hot social and traditional media topic.
Secondly, personal beliefs compel action. Indian resident Nirav, one of the research interviewees, did not connect with any typical organisational terminology around “sustainability." His cultural and philosophical connection to his faith and duty to family ground guided his choices. He is also inspired by “real things, living things and people, not anything he sees on TV or any celebrity.” Relating to what matters most to people and their values, such as self-fulfilment and belonging, can help companies sell sustainability in a way that connects.
Finally, avoid being an organisation that directs. Instead, become a facilitator for people. Recognise that people only sometimes look to organisations for direction. Social image, trusted communities and cultural beliefs drive sustainable actions in many parts of Asia. Companies can play into these social norms, for instance, by appealing to empowerment through activating sustainable purchasing power, community initiatives and the mobilisation of others. Help people protect and stand up for the causes and communities that matter most to people.
A great example is IKEA. Its “Black Friday Re(Sale)” campaign was the world’s first Black Friday sale that fights overconsumption, directing people to a site with thousands of second-hand IKEA products and inspiring thousands of people to buy old instead of new.
Ultimately, an individual’s culture and belief systems can influence their behaviours and consumption patterns. The same can be said in driving sustainable action.
Where businesses place sustainability at the heart of their business, they must also remember that central to this is a human need, want or desire that needs to be fulfilled. Humans are part of the sustainability equation, and we must seek ways to work with them. Companies must acknowledge the diverse definitions of sustainability, embrace human values, connect it to reality and know that people may not always look to organisations for direction. That’s how we can seize the human moment.
Sonia Gupta is the sustainability studio lead for growth markets at Accenture Song.