NEWS9 November 2020

Market research can ‘change the narrative’ on sustainability

News UK

Research businesses can contribute to climate emergency efforts by addressing their own practices and helping to create new sustainability ‘narratives', according to speakers at the MRS Sustainability Summit.

Climate change environment activism protest_crop

Our economy is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to addressing climate change, and market researchers and businesses have a role to play in changing narratives around sustainability, according to independent strategist and activist Paddy Loughman.

Speaking during a keynote talk at the virtual event on 5th November, Loughman cited new economic approaches such as economist Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ framework for sustainable development and replacing GDP (gross domestic product) with GPI (genuine progress indicators).

As well examining what steps their business is taking to be more sustainable, market researchers have a key role to play in “helping to adjust the narrative”, according to Loughman. “The stories we tell help to shape our world. To make real change happen, we need to change those narratives,” he said.

This includes helping to “set the scene” – helping people understand the current situation – and “encouraging people to fall in love with nature”. Loughman also said researchers should recognise people as citizens, not just consumers.

Panellists during the conference discussed the issue of the gap between attitudes and behaviour, or what people say versus what they do – and how this pertains to sustainability.

Jessica Long, head of sustainability UK at Ipsos, pointed to data from the company’s global trend survey, which indicated that concern around climate change was the number one issue globally in 2019. Despite this, in the past six years, people’s intent to live more sustainably hasn’t changed. “We are not seeing the rise in behaviour that we’re seeing in intent,” said Long.

The responsibility of closing the ‘say-do’ gap should not fall to consumers, Long said. “It’s not just behavioural nudges that will facilitate that closure of the ‘say-do’ gap – it really needs to be industry and government helping consumers to navigate a complicated space. There are so many different things that you are confronted with, even if you want to do well.”

Jenny Kedros, associate director at Shift Insight, said: “When doing sustainability research, it’s easy to become blinkered within that small area of sustainability, but people have so many priorities and worries around health, safety and money.”

Sally Hubbard, primary research manager at Fidelity International, discussed the importance of clarity in research briefs. “Be clear about your terms and what you mean to the respondent because the terminology is so slippery in this area. Clarity of the brief and the objective is so crucial. It can be quite an overwhelming area, so I think it’s about breaking it down into specifics – you can’t do everything in one project.”

It is yet unclear what impact Covid-19 will have on sustainability in the longer term; while lockdowns have led to reduced carbon emissions, some aspects of sustainable living have been negatively affected – for example, consumers being unable to use reusable coffee cups.

According to research presented by VCCP at the conference, 31% of respondents claimed that the steps they had taken to act sustainably have changed as a result of the pandemic – citing travelling less, recycling more, thinking more about consumption and having a greater appreciation of nature.

Discussing research with CNBC and Schneider Electric, Ed Coke, founder of Repute Associates, said that interviews with senior sustainability leaders from blue chip companies suggested that Covid-19 acted as a catalyst for progress. “If anything, the pandemic had served as a lightning rod to action for businesses. Sustainability experts have been able to use this as a real-world example of the result of inaction. Companies are re-evaluating their risk models, so conversations about sustainability have become easier to facilitate with senior leaders.”

The Market Research Society has introduced a sustainability pledge to address climate and environmental challenges, as part of which it will track and publish the industry’s carbon figures with the aim of reducing these.

Introducing the pledge, Jonathan Hall, managing partner of Kantar’s sustainability practice, said the industry has a responsibility to learn about sustainability and should not treat it as separate entity. “It’s incumbent on all of us to ‘gen up’ as much as we can. It’s the system and economy we work within, so it’s not something we should see as separate – it’s at the heart of the system in which we operate and therefore all of our client conversations.”