Does every little help? Mainstreaming consumer behaviour

Last Thursday the University of Manchester’s “Sustainable Consumption Institute” (no laughing at the back there!) held the latest of its seminars. It was given by Simon Retallack, of the left-ish leaning Institute of Public Policy Research. They’ve been doing research about consumer attitudes to climate change. The seminar was based around a report they’ve just done called Consumer Power: How can lower-carbon behaviour be mainstreamed.

He started by pointing out that individual energy use and transport account for 44% of the UK carbon dioxide emissions, and that beyond the “environmentally-inclined”, many people don’t take action. He said that mainstream consumers either haven’t been taught about the issue and/or haven’t responded, but that uptake beyond the converted was vital.

He made the uncontroversial but often neglected point that knowing and segmenting the audience is a precondition of success- you can’t just aim at “the public at large”.

But dividing by income/profession will only get you so far, and so he introduced the idea of dividing people by different values.

Based on Albert Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” the Cultural Dynamics Strategy has three broad motivational groups

Pioneers – directed by ‘inner needs’ These are the ‘natural activists’ and are roughly 40% of the population.
Prospectors – driven by esteem and are outer-directed (your fashion victims and conspicuous consumers). About 30% of the population
Finally, settlers are driven by ‘sustenance’, dislike threats and are driven by comfort.

Complicated enough? Not really. Each of these groups can be further divided into four subgroups. But let’s not go there, at least, too much.

Retallack laid out the results of some focus groups/guided discussions and interviews with people within the prospector group. (Their psychological rewards come from the esteem of others, status, fashion, success.)

The research looked at their opinions under “on the move”- energy efficient cars, UK holidays and trains and “home”- energy monitors, heating controls and solar panels.

The participants were aware of climate change and its impacts, and partly positive about “doing their bit”. They would go so far as admit to a dislike of “waste” but also said they had “climate fatigue.” they thought it depressing, boring, faddy, gimmicky.
They were sceptical about both government and business motives
Oh, and the obnoxious selfish ignorant little planet-killers really really didn’t like being made to feel guilty about their “lifestyle choices”

Retallack made the point, that maybe some of us (author included) need tattooed on the inside of our eyelids- Guilt Is Not Effective.

On a related point, these prospectors did not like the environmental campaigners. The word smug came up rather a lot…

Saving money was not automatically a motivator for all these guys- it could be seen as penny pinching/being an old biddy.

Recommendations from the work came under two headings-


  • Don’t focus on climate change “it’s one of those things you think about for a few minutes, then get depressed and move on to the next”
  • Emphasise saving money (especially at present)
  • Be aware of the ‘rebound effect’ (people use money saved on energy bills to book a flight/buy a car)
  • Use the right language- “carbon pollution” or “waste” instead of co2, emissions.
  • Satirise high carbon behaviours and leave room for self-expression
  • Make low carbon desirable and fun
  • Being in control matters (e.g. Solar panels help protect from rising energy bills)
  • Avoid guilt and the environmental label
  • Use messengers that ‘keep it real’ (B and C list celebs work better, people can relate to them. Bono and Madonna are not the way to go)


Strong government policy essential

  • Avoid sending mixed signals (like, er, third runways, which were spontaneously mentioned by focus groupies)
  • Send the right price signals (taxes as carrots and sticks), but make sure changes are introduced transparently. Hypothecation (ring-fencing money raised to solve a specific problem) is needed, no matter how much HM Treasury doesn’t like it.
  • Make the right things affordable. Subsidies, discount on stamp duty, on bill repayment etc
  • Make low-carbon services visible (demonstration homes in each locality)
  • Make it desirable

Retallack handled the Q and A well, giving brief but detailed answers and not droning on endlessly.

All in all, a useful hour was had by all. The next Sustainable Consumption Institute lecture is on Thursday 19th November from 1pm to 2pm. Humanities Building, Bridgford St (near the Blackwell’s in the University Precinct). Dr Sally Randles of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research will be talking, hopefully about her fascinating work around aviation and why we fly.

About these seminars: They’re free, they’re friendly and I’m not just saying that cos Tesco bunged me a hundred quid (cos sadly, they didn’t).

About the huge multinational that sponsors the Sustainable Consumption Institute: They want to build a Tesco in Stretford so big you could see it from Jupiter with the naked eye. These guys want stop it.

Other sources of info:

Disclaimer- this blog was typed up 5 days after the event, and my scribbled notes have become even more illegible with the passing of time. I may have gotten some of it wrong…


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in Consumers, IPPR, Sustainable Consumption Institute, Tesco. Bookmark the permalink.

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