OPINION29 April 2020

Helping brands to help people to help the climate

Covid-19 Energy Impact 2020 Opinion Trends

Conversation on the climate emergency must be followed by action, and the insights industry is well placed to put its understanding of people to good use, writes Jem Fawcus. 

Climate change environment activism protest_crop

Well, none of us saw that coming. This article was written in what seems like simpler days, before the coronavirus hit us, seemingly out of the blue, and washed all our other concerns away.  But they are still there, in the background. How will we respond to them when we finally move on?

The climate crisis is different to coronavirus. We can see it coming. You are the virus. I am the virus. Our businesses, and our clients, are the virus. Each of us contributing to the approaching climate cataclysm is guilty as charged. We know we’re doing it. Each of us can see it coming. Yet here we are: often insouciant, usually complicit.  

That’s according to Paddy Loughman of climate pressure group, Extinction Rebellion, who, as a former researcher himself, kindly keynoted the MRS Impact conference last month. However, notably, Loughman’s message was not one of doom but hope; he is sanguine for a better tomorrow. “We must aim to be the only species to anticipate our own extinction – and avoid it,” he told a pensive, packed house. 

If our industry does one thing well, it’s understanding people’s wants and desires. But until now, this has generally been aimed at helping our clients to sell more stuff.

This begs several questions of our industry; its raison d'etre, its ethical and moral codes, and where we go next: What is the role of research right now? What can we do to be a part of what needs to be done? How quickly can we adapt?

I have volunteered to help start the conversation about climate change in our industry, facilitated by the MRS, and would like us to draft a blueprint that we could – and I believe should – follow as this turbulent decade gets underway. Whatever the outcome, something has to change, and I urge all of you – those of you who were at the conference responding passionately to Paddy’s talk, and those of you who recognise we all need to change –  to help me start to make it.

Loughman agrees. He described two types of change: climate change on one hand, system change on the other. We need to focus on the latter to ameliorate the former. For example, his ascension from researcher to eco-warrior was driven by the fact that what he believed was more important than what he owned. His system, and approach to life, shifted for the betterment of the planet. 

One of Paddy’s key points is that climate change is not the story, but the setting and backdrop for each and every decision businesses of all stripes will make in the coming years. Those which adapt will survive; those which don’t will fail; this is likely to be even more true as we come out of the massive economic disruption we are going through now.

Loughman talked of how we need to rewire the economy to put climate change front and centre of everything we do, if firms are to succeed. “Sustainability is an opportunity not a sacrifice,” he said. As an industry, we are uniquely placed to bring that setting, that reality, as we hear it in the worries and concerns of society at large, to the heart of every business decision.

The conversation around the climate had escalated to an emergency over the last year. Conversation must inevitably be followed by action. People don’t want a point of view from brands – Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough have done that. People want a sense of action. They want brands to empower them; to offer climate-savvy experiences that they can be a part of; an access point to make a small difference through their purchase decisions. We as an industry can help to enable this. 

I asked earlier what the role of research is within the context of climate change. Ask yourself: how do we help people to make decisions that are good for the planet? How can we help our clients to see the opportunities in moving to a sustainable economy, and the dangers in falling behind? Could we put our understanding of people to better use? 

The answers are in the questions. By making climate change the setting of every insight we offer, we can give brands the confidence to empower citizens (not consumers, note) to make decisions that are better for all of us. We must use our knowledge to understand the world as it changes before us. How can we build a more ethical, sustainable world if we don’t first understand it? 

Our industry is primed to help businesses understand this brave new world. We can help brands to help people to help the climate. The powers we have used for bad can be put to good use. We can see the virus coming. We have the insights to stop it. So we must. 

Jem Fawcus is group chief executive at Firefish

In the coming months, MRS will bring the research sector together to explore the themes raised here, with the aim of forming a plan of action for agencies and clients to work together.