OPINION15 June 2015

The role of research in sustainability


I’m on a mission to help make the world a better place. Just meeting the basic needs of the seven billion people who currently live on this planet is already proving to be problematic.


If you factor in rapid biodiversity loss, climate change, overcrowding in urban areas, widening inequality gaps, food shortages, food waste – the list goes on, but I won’t depress you anymore – there’s a lot to be done. With all of this in mind, I sometimes wonder at the fact that we’re not all furiously working on projects to change the face of consumerism into something a bit more sustainable.

My belief is that the world of business is probably our best hope for creating a more sustainable future. Businesses lead the way in terms of innovation and are often our most effective change-makers; while NGOs do a fantastic job of raising awareness, they can’t physically do much themselves, and policy-makers are far too busy dealing with a plague of short-term problems to think much beyond the next five years. A more sustainable future is certainly in consumers’ interests, which means it’s definitely in businesses’ interests. Unfortunately it often seems as though consumers and businesses are both suffering from boiled frog syndrome, with neither willing to jump first despite the rising temperature.

I am, though, heartened by signals that both of these frogs are starting to feel the heat. In recent times I have observed people you might not normally expect showing awareness and concern for a whole host of sustainability-related issues. Even if they don’t call it this, I’m hearing it loud and clear when they express their concerns around food, health, the cost of living, and their children’s future.

Each year surveys tell us that more and more people only want to buy from companies who they believe are acting responsibly. Of course, the argument we often hear about why a lot of businesses are slow to react to this demand is that this consumer desire does not necessarily translate into purchase. However, I’m not sure this argument will hold strong for too much longer. A number of factors are converging to blow the frogs out of the water. It’s a long list: the millennial generation is coming of age economically and is actively seeking and creating solutions to global problems; demand for corporate accountability is increasing; there is a growing number of responsibly produced products on offer at comparable prices that make the purchase decision much easier; and the planet cannot cope with our ever-increasing demands on it. Like it or not, sustainability is unlikely to be a niche consideration for much longer.

However, the road to change will not be easy and research will have a critical role to play in furthering the sustainability agenda. Researchers who have an expert understanding of the issues will need to be on the front line, testing, developing and tracking new modes of consumption, and exploring ways to encourage associated behaviour change. I can see a future where a brand’s social and environmental initiatives become a critical asset and research will be needed to find new and meaningful ways to engage consumers around these issues. We’ll also need to continue to explore the role and appropriation of emerging technology, as well as seeking to understand how to position new products and services and tracking their impact.

Personally, I’m very excited by this. Not only because it might mean that the human race isn’t heading for complete self-destruction after all, but also because I can be a part of helping to change the trajectory.

Selena King is head of the Social Responsibility and Sustainability Team at Firefish

1 Comment

9 years ago

Thanks for beginning this important conversation! We all think Bout end goals (business impact and decisions) - it's time to factor and seriously consider societal consequences and goals.

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