Monday, 2 November 2015
A conversation with a hospitality industry professional at a sustainability breakfast recently touched on the subject of the plastic bag ban and its value in the transition to a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy. We concluded that, while there a numerous activities that undoubtedly have a greater adverse effect on carbon emissions, the ban has value as a highly visible activity that takes place in the mainstream, thereby hopefully acting as a gateway to more meaningful action by consumer.
That got us thinking about our own sectors and our respective equivalents. The hotel sector was among the first to encourage its customers to help it reduce impacts – I can no longer remember a time when the ubiquitous “leave it on the floor and we’ll wash it, hang it up and we won’t” sign didn’t appear in hotel bathrooms. In office imaging it’s paper – signified, for many of us, by the “think before printing this email” footers. These have become so commonplace that their impact is often dismissed, but that doesn’t necessarily negate their subliminal power to contribute to the nudge effect of gradual behaviour change, especially when considered cumulatively.
I can now catch a bus that is conspicuously powered by renewables, ride into town past numerous houses with solar PV panels, do my shopping using re-usable bags – even choose for my supermarket shop to be delivered at a time when the vehicle is already in my area. There’s an active local Freegle group and, off the end of the main shopping street, a repair café and bicycle kitchen. Each of these small, incremental steps towards a more sustainable future may contribute little individually but together increase the visibility of low-impact options and edge us towards the tipping point where sustainable choices become the norm.
As sustainability professionals in businesses, we’re advised to analyse our emissions and focus first on the actions that will have a direct positive impact, but perhaps we’re missing a trick. For most organisations, the greatest opportunity for positive change lies in galvanising our customers into action – and, as M&S shows, if we do so with sufficient commitment it can transform our commercial outcomes too. It every business identified its own “plastic bag” and sought to engage its customers in a symbolic, highly visible act of sustainable living – better still, if it incentivised and rewarded it – then behaviour change might just become an unstoppable force.