'Like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush': COP26 must do more to spark real change by consumers and business

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Viki Cooke from BritainThinks and BCW's Caroline Winters explore how to drive greater consumer and business engagement in COP26

COP26 is fast approaching, yet it feels as distant and difficult to grasp as ever. So how is the UK public feeling about COP26, climate change, and what the opportunity for business might be?

1. You only know the language if you're in the club

Climate isn't the sole preserve of business, government and activists, but we could be forgiven for sometimes thinking it is. ESG is a buzzword in many boardrooms, but it is often seen solely through the lens of reporting and business stakeholders. Too often, the focus on the consumer is missing, yet crucial targets won't be hit without changes in their behaviours.

BritainThinks' research shows that the public often feels alienated by key terms, from ‘net zero' to the ‘climate emergency', at the very time that many people are open to the issue and want to know more about what they can do. This is why it's really interesting to see a new, simpler speak emerging in the world of CSR, like the holistic, no-nonsense approach from the Better Business Act Coalition.

Businesses need to learn from this, and do more to demystify the language around climate change and ESG commitments to ensure they are understood at a consumer, as well as a corporate, level. This is critical to consumers feeling part of a movement for change and understanding their role in combatting the challenges the world is facing.

2. Individualism only works if you know what to do and you can do it

As we move into the next stage of the Covid crisis, there's a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility. But we can't rely on this type of thinking to solve the climate crisis: our research shows that one of the biggest barriers to consumers taking action is that they don't know what they can do. The actions that are most familiar are often only the tip of the iceberg, while the most game-changing are often out of reach for structural reasons. Many consumers are all too aware of this, and worry they're being asked to turn up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.

At BCW, we believe this is where business can make a difference. Companies should look at how they can drive change through their products and services, partnerships and communities. Responsible businesses invest in opportunities that enable individuals to take action easily - and see the results. That may include price incentives or capping, education programmes or the introduction of new materials. Regardless of how they do it, the businesses which recognise that they need to both agitate for, and enable, action will be the ones who form meaningful partnerships with consumers in the long term.

3. COP26 needs to be more than just a moment

COP26 is hurtling towards us, but the debate is being dominated by talk about the event itself and the politics surrounding it. Despite high levels of interest in the issue of climate change, at three-fifths, most of the public has no idea COP26 is even happening. To engender real change, conversations around COP need to be lifted out from the mechanics of the conference. The UK cannot see its role as complete once the two weeks in Glasgow are over.

For companies too, COP26 is a staging post on a longer journey rather than the destination. When the summit is over, short-term initiatives won't cut it as a freshly informed, activist population demands more action now. Targets set for 2030 or 2050 feel too abstract and distant - the challenge for companies is to show what they are doing now, demonstrate progress and maintain momentum throughout. Roadmaps for change, ongoing engagement and sharing learnings will be not just important but expected.

Viki Cooke is chair of insight and strategy consultancy BritainThinks, and Caroline Winters is senior adviser at integrated communications agency BCW.

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