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Empowering sustainable consumption: A model for accelerating social change

A woman selects produce: Companies must take the lead in empowering sustainable consumption.

Companies must take the lead in empowering sustainable consumption. Image: Unsplash/Tara Clark

Zara Ingilizian
Head, Consumer Industries; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Oliver Wright
Managing Director, Strategy, Consumer Goods and Services, Accenture
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SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The aspiration-action gap in sustainable consumption persists because consumers generally lack accessible and affordable climate-friendly options, while many companies are waiting for a clear demand signal.
  • Organizations have a vested interest in breaking this climate responsibility stalemate, as a shift towards environmentally-friendly lifestyles would support their decarbonization goals and unlock opportunities for new value creation.
  • An evidence-based model for accelerating social change shows how different ecosystem actors can build durable momentum for systems transformation to accelerate sustainable consumption at scale.

Concern about environmental issues is at an all-time high – globally, two-thirds of consumers see climate change as a “very serious” problem with significant and growing proportions of people feeling personally affected. That concern has turned into a strong desire to change the way we live, with half the population willing to change their lifestyle “a great deal” to be more environmentally friendly.

However, there remains a large aspiration-action gap when it comes to leading climate-friendly lifestyles.

A sustainable consumption impasse

Research from Accenture reveals that, despite public awareness of and concern about climate change, sustainable options for consumers often require too much sacrifice. Lacking accessible and affordable climate-friendly choices are barriers to sustainable consumption. Individuals’ identities and cultural norms also prevent a shift in ingrained behaviours towards sustainable lifestyles. For instance, nutritional habits can be deeply rooted in social and cultural heritage, which may complicate choosing plant-based over meat-based diets.

Consumers expect more support from organizations to help them shift to climate-friendly behaviours. Meanwhile, businesses have been waiting for more demand for sustainable products so that they can be sure they will reap the benefits of customer loyalty and profit.

However, given the urgent need to advance decarbonization, organizations must take the lead to change the available options and defaults for climate-friendly living and help consumers understand how these solutions are actionable and relevant to them.

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Companies have a vested interest in breaking this climate responsibility stalemate. Shifting to climate-friendly consumption behaviours will unlock opportunities for new value creation. Citizens of the future will need to live, shop, eat and play in ways that are better for the planet.

Such a transition would be accompanied by transformations of business capabilities, consumer engagement strategies and new product innovation.

Supporting consumers in this way can also mean organizations progress within Scope 3 decarbonization – companies’ indirect emissions. Government regulation on the disclosure of all emissions is starting to emerge and the use of sold products and their end-of-life treatment can comprise the largest share of companies’ Scope 3 emissions.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform has set out to identify the strategic pathways needed to engage and empower consumers as part of broader Scope 3 decarbonization efforts.

A model for accelerating social change

Professor Edward Walker, a leading social scientist at UCLA and Stanford University, has developed an evidence-based model for accelerating social change, which offers a guide on how to catalyze and build momentum for systems transformation needed to accelerate sustainable consumption at scale.

According to Professor Walker, large-scale change in social norms and behaviours begins with an initial catalyst that affects early public consciousness on a particular topic. These catalysts can be endogenous actors, such as individuals and groups engaged in advocacy or organizations that function as strategic, neutral facilitators for stakeholders to coalesce on industry and policy agendas.

Catalysts can also be exogenous events that fundamentally alter society. The recent record flooding in Germany, wildfires in Australia, and drought in California are prime examples.

When it comes to building large-scale and durable momentum for social change, Walker’s research identifies institution-led action as an unmatched accelerant.

He defines institutions as businesses and governments, which can act as powerful levers for lasting systemic change through corporate agendas and new legislation.

Social change agents – referring to individuals or groups including media, academia and civil society organizations – find leverage from institutional reform, which generates wider societal engagement on a particular issue and then influences industry and policymakers to enact further reforms. Ultimately, this results in a fundamental change in social norms and behaviours at scale.

sustainable consumption
Model for accelerating social change

Professor Walker points to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, as evidence of the efficacy of this social change model.

Catalytic action

Actions of the individuals and organizations who advocated tirelessly for equal rights prior to the ADA were the initial catalyst legislators could not ignore. One powerful example of their activism is the Capitol Crawl, culminating on the steps of the US Capitol just months before the ADA vote, which demonstrated the inaccessibility of public places.

The ADA made it illegal to discriminate against people based on their disabilities in instances like employment, access to public places and transportation. The law ushered in a wave of change at scale as businesses updated policies and procedures and complied with accessible design standards and provision of auxiliary aids.

The ADA was a milestone but not the destination and social change agents like The Arc and ADAPT – nonprofits dedicated to protecting the rights of people with disabilities – continued to advance inclusion in everyday life by engaging on issues like Olmstead v. L.C., a 1999 United States Supreme Court decision, which eliminated the unnecessary segregation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This virtuous cycle of social change has continued to advance disability inclusion at all levels – local, state, national government and the court system.

The Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform is committed to its role as a catalyst in scaling sustainable consumption by setting the agenda and convening stakeholders around a transformation framework that defines strategic pathways for a better future. If companies and governments make it easier to change consumption habits, consumers will be much more able to realize their sustainable lifestyle aspirations.

In turn, increased consumer demand will incentivize companies to enact large-scale and durable reform. We encourage institutions worldwide to consider their role in this model to build momentum for social movements and welcome them to join us in our efforts to create a better future for society.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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