HomeBehaviour changeHow understanding values creates better conversations on climate change

How understanding values creates better conversations on climate change

SME smallThis post is by Sam Hampton of the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

There are nearly six million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK, including a wide variety of business types, ranging from fairly large manufacturing companies to small family firms, social enterprises and micro-businesses. Altogether their energy use produces enormous quantities of carbon emissions.

The average SME could save up to 25 per cent of its energy use through relatively simple, low cost measures, like upgrading lighting or installing occupancy sensors. Unfortunately, they don’t tend to take up these opportunities, for many different reasons.

While support is needed, policy interventions of any kind that affect SMEs tend to be politically charged. Traditional policies such as regulations can have a disproportionate impact on smaller organisations. They can struggle with the bureaucracy and paperwork, and it can also be expensive and time-consuming for government agencies to police.

Gaining new insights into values
For these reasons, incentives such as grants and subsidised loans are preferred. These are often accompanied by face-to-face advice from energy and environmental experts. We have used insights from Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values to inform our research into how low carbon advisers to SMEs can have a greater impact.

We are interested in how to encourage more businesses to think about, and act on, climate change. Over the last 12 months, for our project  Growing Greener, we have interviewed and conducted workshops with low carbon advisers to hear their experiences of visiting and talking with SMEs.

Schwartz’s framework, also known as the Schwartz Values System (SVS), has been developed using surveys with over 60,000 people from all over the world. It categorises basic values into ten different types, and four broad groupings: Self-Transcendence; Conservation; Self-Enhancement; and Openness to Change.


SMEs, like the population at large, are extremely diverse. The common assumption is that entrepreneurs and business managers are more likely to be motivated by ‘achievement’ and ‘power’, and by implication care less about issues such as climate change, but our indicates that these assumptions are likely to be wrong.

All the segments of Schwartz’s Value System have merit and a successful transition into a low carbon economy will not only require engaging businesses from across the value system but will also benefit from the range of different skillsets associated with each value-type.

How to engage more SMEs climate change
Climate change is a major issue that all sectors of society and the economy need to take seriously. Our primary research focuses on environmental messaging and has found that understanding and appealing to the full range of Basic Human Values can help to engage a wider set of people.

Some businesses, for example long established family firms, may be mainly concerned with maintaining tradition and continuity and minimising risks (conservation values). For these businesses, we have found that common approaches used to discuss climate change fail to motivate them. Business owners with predominantly ‘conservation’ values are likely to respond better to messages on climate change which make links to risk, responsibility and family. Research has also shown that appealing to reducing waste and promoting British low carbon energy technologies (‘Great British Energy’) may help to galvanise centre-right audiences.

Conversely, some SMEs consider themselves to be drivers of innovation and disruption. Leaders of these businesses are more likely to identify with sets of values in the upper-left quadrant of the Schwartz framework. They are motivated by newness and change, and respond positively to environmental messaging that focuses on new business opportunities, innovative technologies and the potential to disrupt incumbent corporations.

See below where we have overlaid key words on to the SVS diagram to indicate how language can be used to appeal to individuals with different values.


A new framework for low carbon advisers to SMEs
Schwartz tells us that it is impossible to change anybody’s basic values. But, rather than focus on certain types of SMEs, or individual business leaders with particular values, the SVS allows the advisers to adapt their language, messages and approaches so that they can work most effectively with all types of organisation.

In our workshops we discovered that, by instinct, the advisers are already highly adaptive. Meeting a wide variety of businesses in their day-to-day roles, they tailor the language they use and the advice they provide. They might find themselves talking about the efficiency of an industrial kiln with one SME in the morning, and giving advice about crowdfunding to an environmental charity in the afternoon. We hope that our research will give them a more robust framework to support their messaging.

 If you would like to find out more about the challenge of communicating climate to SMEs, take part in our upcoming webinar ‘SMEs and Climate Change – the Communication Challenge’, on Thursday 28 February 13:00-14:00 GMT.






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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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