Asking the right sustainability questions

by Jessica Long
State of the Nation

In January we thought 2020 might be about climate change. Our Global Trends survey showed that it was the number one value that united us across the globe. Four in five people globally were concerned we were headed for a global environmental disaster, even if they didn’t agree on a solution.

But, then the brute force of a virus hit us. A global pandemic, recession, a movement of social unrest that’s permeated borders everywhere, the strangest US presidential election in history, and Brexit continues to trundle on as if nothing’s happened. You could argue that green issues have rightly been secondary on our agendas and consciences.

But, that would be to ignore some giant reminders from every corner of the planet, including Australian bushfires, Indian cyclones, Somalian flash floods and Californian forest fires. That’s not to mention the Russian oil spills, Filipino volcanic eruptions and record high temperatures in the Arctic.

Perhaps as a result, despite the pandemic, we have seen a steady increase in environmental concern in the UK, France, Italy and Germany from 2019 to 2020. Most importantly, 71% globally say it’s just as important as COVID-19 in the long term.

What industry and governments really want to know is: ‘Do people care about sustainability enough to change their behaviour?’ And this is where it gets a bit more complicated.

You could argue that green issues have rightly been secondary on our agendas and consciences

Willingness to live more sustainably has remained relatively static over the last six years

Thinking about things you might do in order to limit your own contribution to climate change, how likely or unlikely would you be to make the following changes within the next year?

Earth Day 2020

10,504 online adults aged 16-74 across 12 countries, 26 Sep – 10 Oct 2014, 21 Feb – 6 Mar 2020

Our analysis shows that people’s willingness to live more sustainably hasn’t increased significantly in the last six years, which really confounds people: ‘If they care so much, why aren’t they doing more?’ The challenge is that people feel they have relatively little agency – they expect brands and government to lead the way. Their expectations of industry have risen.

Vertical view of solar panels in a field

Did you

In April,


globally agreed that in the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19

Sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’. With increasing regulation, investors asking questions, and consumers expecting change, it is becoming about the viability of a business. People increasingly recognise greenwashing. Rather than allowing for and playing to the consumers’ ‘say-do’ gap, governments and industries must help them jump it. Britain is the leader in renewable energy in the OECD (there was no national debate about this), regulation and tax incentives created a market for renewable energy. London has a congestion charge – because it had no referendum over it like Stockholm or Manchester. Ken Livingstone did it in the face of popular opposition, but was rewarded by being re-elected. If he had asked people it would never have happened.

Sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’

The public expect brands and the government to lead the way on sustainable products

Who, if anyone, do you think is responsible for ensuring consumer products are environmentally and socially responsible?

Innovation Forum

1,000 adults in US, UK and France, 2019

Recycling logo on the side of a bin

By changing the status quo, by minimising trade-offs that consumers have to think about, government and brands can use the latent permission most people have already given them to drive change.

Jessica Long

Jessica Long

Head of Sustainability