By Måns Tesch, Chief Strategy Officer, Asia-Pacific, Middle East & Africa - GREY.
A common misconception is that Asia is a region where people care more about progress than sustainability. Even if that might have been true in the past, our recent survey covering India, Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore & Australia shows that 80% of respondents are concerned and worried about global warming and are keen to make a difference.
That’s a promising start, but despite having been overwhelmed with information about global warming and its consequences for the past decade, people are aware of a range of positive actions, but are almost clueless about which ones have more impact.
This “Climate Confusion” is an opportunity for brands to bridge the gap and arm people with more knowledge. There are millions of already motivated consumers who could ignite a tidal wave of positive change by directing more of their hard-earned dollars, pesos, rupees and ringgit to highly impactful choices. The rationale for brands to clear up the climate confusion isn’t exclusively tied to making a planet positive impact, conscious consumers are ready to reward genuinely sustainable brands with their loyalty.
The article digs deeper into the conclusions from the study as well as suggesting a few thought starters regarding how brands could begin to take action.
On an unusually cold November morning in 1956, the New York Times featured an obituary celebrating the life and times of their 79-year old science editor, Waldemar Kaempffert.
His death from a stroke ended Waldemar’s 26 years at the paper, a distinguished career following his calling to inspire curiosity about the wonders of the natural world and scientific discovery.
A few weeks earlier, he wrote what turned out to be his final article. Using the carefully worded headline “Warmer Climate on the Earth May Be Due To More Carbon Dioxide in the Air”, he alerted readers that “…the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere will have a profound effect on our climate”. Then he ended on a somber note “…coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap and there’s every reason to believe both will be consumed by industry as long as it pays to do so”.
As Victor Hugo put it; “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come”. The stars weren’t yet aligned for the world to take in Waldemar’s groundbreaking article and it didn’t create much of a stir.
In 1988, over 30 years later, severe drought, heatwaves and forest fires in the US and Brazil finally pushed the greenhouse effect into the spotlight. We’ve been thoroughly warned, informed and educated (on and off) ever since.
The first few decades of sustainability communication too often slipped into “greenwashing”, lofty promises of radical change in a distant future or putting the spotlight on an obscure part of the business that happened to be sustainable.
These days even our social feeds are flooded with sustainability messaging, more or less connected to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Earnest expressions like “Straws suck”, “Act Now or Swim Later”, “Meat is murder”, “There is no Planet B", “Flight-shaming" and “Act as if the house is on fire, because it is” now have universal recognition.
At the same time we’re drowning in a sea of sustainable click-bait and disinformation; “Here’s How You Can Fight Climate Change While Working Out”, “3 Surprising Ways Climate Action Can Make You Rich” or “Global Warming Was Invented by China to Make the US Less Competitive” (guess who came up with the last one).
Shining A Light on Climate Confusion
Even though global warming is constantly in the news, we had a hunch that the cacophony has brought confusion rather than enlightenment. To find out, we asked people in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Philippines & Singapore about their perspectives around global warming and they made it abundantly clear that Climate Confusion is real.
The notion of global warming, and how it threatens the world as we know it, can be depressing and overwhelming to think about. After all, what difference could one person make anyway? Shouldn’t it be up to governments and fossil-fuel corporations to take action?
That didn’t stop a shy teenager with Asperger’s called Greta Thunberg to sit on her own outside the Swedish Parliament to plead for action. In less than a year she had inspired millions of young people around the world to join the “Fridays for Future” movement, single handedly proving that anyone can step up and make a difference.
When I came to Singapore four years ago, curious to
find out more about the attitude towards Sustainability, the usual comments were along the lines of: “In Asia, people care about progress over progressive, sustenance over sustainability…”.
Contrary to this belief, the first conclusion of our study was that 80% of people in APAC are “Seriously Concerned and Worried About Global Warming”.
Scratching the surface to understand where this concern is coming from, we found that the consequences people worry about are; Extreme Weather, Rising Sea Levels, Epidemics, Heatwaves, Haze, Scarcity of Fresh Water and Food Security (in that order).
On a personal level, they feel that Price, followed by Availability, Complex To Adopt, Breaking Old Habits and being Outside of My Control are the obstacles that stand in the way of them living more sustainably.
The concrete steps people have already engaged in are everyday actions like; Switching Off Appliances (88%), Consuming Only What’s Needed (86%), Recycling (80%) and Reducing Single-Use Plastics (78%).
When we asked what they believe are the most impactful individual actions to curb climate change, they chose Recycling, followed by Avoiding Single-Use Plastics, Switching Off Appliances, Consuming Only What’s Needed and Upgrading Lightbulbs.
People seem to overestimate the positive potential of their everyday behaviour, none of these actions are more than moderately impactful.
Instead, the most effective choices you could make are things that are connected to bigger decisions or changes in lifestyle like; Having Fewer Children, Living Car Free, Switching to a Plant-Based Diet, Green Energy or an Electric Car (in that order).
Conclusion On A Higher Level
The conclusion is that all these years of information and education have only succeeded in confusing us on a higher level - we know about actions that could be helpful, but we’re close to clueless about which ones has the more profound impact.
Importantly though, this isn’t a winner takes all situation, every kind of positive climate action is worth taking. It’s not about devaluing or refraining from behaviours that have less impact.
Why should brands get excited about bridging this glaring gap in climate awareness?
The cynic would argue that brands could use the existing confusion to their benefit by promoting low-impact actions like straws made of paper on a juice carton and be lauded as a climate game changer - for a fleeting moment. Transparency around brands’ carbon footprints is on the rise, as well as the resulting public outcries when greenwashing is being exposed.Almost eight in 10 consumers claim sustainability is a priority when buying new products.
It simply makes business sense to take the lead and arm consumers with more knowledge. There are millions of already motivated people who would ignite a tidal wave of positive change by directing more of their hard-earned dollars to highly impactful choices.
Clarity Creates Trust
It’s not surprising that people are confused when there are no universal standards around tracking impact or measuring your carbon footprint. To build trust, like-minded companies should join forces to agree on category or industry standards to measure impact. Brands like Korea’s LG Electronics are working with The Carbon Trust to measure the carbon footprint of all their products.
All We Need Is Nudge
Changing fundamental parts of your lifestyle is incredibly hard. If we tell people that living sustainably means they can’t have children, drive, eat meat or drink lattes, it could easily have the opposite effect, making people feel depressed and disempowered.
The role for brands could be to educate, inspire, to nudge people to take the first step. In Singapore, lab-grown chicken has just been approved for eating. Impossible beef was created for people who just love burgers and would never give them up. The similarity in texture and taste makes the transition easier and more enjoyable.
Is It Sustainable If It’s Not Transparent?
If your aim is true, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you should be able to show the entire supply and value chain of your products with complete transparency. It’s not until you trace the origin of the product back to its’ source that you - and the public - can be certain about its true impact. Singaporean food start-up Re- was founded with that promise in mind, encouraging consumers to explore the whole journey from soil to table of their range of breakfast products.
The Fading Value of Pledges
Bold promises like “Carbon Neutrality by 2050” are almost impossible to follow-up and doesn’t project a sense of urgency. To win peoples’ trust, brands need to make a tangible difference here and now by finding an honest and credible connection between the very heart of your business and a positive sustainable impact today. EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young) have already pledged to be carbon negative this year.
A Badge of Honour
Now that we’ve reached a tipping point of concern around global warming, it also affects how brands help people express their identity, like Korean fashion brand RE;CODE who famously upcycle every single piece of unsold clothing since they started a decade ago. By showing consumers how to have a greater impact, brands can enable people to display their identity as conscious and concerned sustainability champions.
In short, brands have a brilliant opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Waldemar Kaempffert, to help clear up the climate confusion and take action at the same time. Or as he would have put it - to inspire curiosity about the wonders of the natural world and scientific discovery.
Research team: Måns Tesch, Cyrille Locatelli, Hui Shan Chin, Pearlyn Teo - GREY (Singapore)
An online survey commissioned by Sustainably Grey (via Pollfish) with 800 respondents in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Philippines & Singapore.
For more information, please contact Måns Tesch - firstname.lastname@example.org
 New York Times, November 28, 1956  New York Times, October 28, 1956  Seth Wynes & Kimberly A Nicholas 2017, Environ. Res. Lett. 12 074024  Seth Wynes & Kimberly A Nicholas 2017, Environ. Res. Lett. 12 074024  The Sustainability Commitment, Human Impact Tracker, StreetBees, 2020