This post is by Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at Which?.
Climate change targets are necessarily ambitious. Weather patterns that were once considered freakish are now occurring regularly across the world, with wildfires and flooding happening at a frightening rate. Watching these scenes unfold, it can often feel like the task of turning the tide is insurmountable. A more ambitious approach is needed from the government and businesses. But what the rest of us do will also be crucial in driving this transition, and that requires more meaningful consumer engagement, with more reliable information and support provided for the choices we make.
People need more advice and support from government
Most people want to play their part to help reach climate change targets but, as a new Which? survey of 3,600 people has found, people do not believe they are receiving enough support from the UK or devolved governments to live more sustainably. It isn’t just government support. Three quarters believe that the government’s net zero target won’t be met without greater help from manufacturers and retailers.
These findings matter because the changes consumers will have to make to their lives, the switch to electric vehicles, replacing millions of gas boilers, eating less meat and buying fewer, more efficient products, are fundamental.
Yet, too often, even the most enthusiastic adopters of greener and cleaner living are coming up against significant barriers, including a lack of reliable information. Our research found a mismatch between what consumers think will have the most impact (limiting their use of single use plastics, for example) and what experts say will be the most beneficial actions (like changing diets).
We all need to do better and have a role to play. That includes consumer organisations such as Which?. We are committed to providing good advice and information to help people make sustainable choices and we are ready to work on this with the government and businesses.
Ahead of next week’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, the government has set out its plans, in its Net zero strategy and Heat and buildings strategy, to support key areas such as installing a heat pump and buying an electric car. It included some proposals for greater consumer engagement. But, if these strategies are to succeed, it needs to encompass all areas where change is needed, including helping people to eat more sustainably, and it should build on the seven principles for engaging consumers which we describe in our report Supporting consumers in the transition to net zero. These are: the creation of a joined up policy between government departments and regulators; an approach that puts people at the centre; a transition that is equitable; clear information that people can trust; the phasing out of bad choices; using low carbon technologies that can be reused, recycled and repaired; and consumer protections that underpin the move to a more sustainable future.
Businesses should make it easier for people to switch
The government needs to work with businesses to help consumers make informed choices about the products they buy. Our survey respondents told us that putting a product’s likely durability, energy rating, repairability and recyclability on the label would be beneficial. Companies should be bound to do more of this. Similarly, people have told us that they want the government, retailers and food businesses to make it easier for them to choose options that are good for the environment, including clearer labelling of the environmental impact of food products and putting tighter controls on the claims made.
Affordability and trust are vital
Living a greener lifestyle mustn’t come down to how much money you have. Survey respondents mentioned how expensive environmentally friendly products are, and more financial help should be provided, either through grants or tax incentives, to avoid a two tier, inequitable transition. There is currently a £2,500 government car plug-in grant, with additional funding announced in the Net zero strategy for targeted grants, but unease remains about the costs. The same is true for home heating. Over half of our respondents were put off by the high upfront prices of installing low carbon energy systems. Grants and lower stamp duty for energy efficient homes are just some of the ways people thought the government could help consumers to make the change.
It will also be necessary to phase out bad choices and bring in consumer protections fit for a sustainable future. Consumers want businesses to improve the availability of sustainable products and make them more affordable, and the government should work with businesses to achieve this.
Underpinning all of this should be strong protections to ensure that people buying new products and services can trust that they are safe, repairable and properly sustainable, and that they can get effective redress when things go wrong. This includes when making complex changes such as installing a new heating system. Consumers who trust the markets they participate in are much more likely to try new products and services.
It’s not always easy being green and these changes won’t happen overnight. Some aspects of living life more sustainably may be complex and expensive. But, as our survey has shown, there is still a strong willingness for people to do more and play their part. We stand ready to work with the government and businesses to ensure that everyone is properly supported to make the switch.