Michael Briggs, Which? Head of Sustainability, discusses the case to go green from a consumer perspective

The UK has made giant strides towards its net zero target in the last thirty years. Low carbon electricity now makes up half of the UK’s energy supply and emissions have been cut to near half of 1990 levels. But to date the drive to net zero has had little impact on consumers, or in reality required consumers to change their behaviours or choices. This is all changing.

The coming decade will witness a convergence of established consumer trends to ‘go green’ with a more urgent legislative agenda (loosely flagged in the ten point plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’). Challenges and opportunities for business will clearly flow and perhaps are best summarised by the Committee for Climate Change (the body responsible for the UK’s pathway to net zero and carbon budgets). Over 40% of the carbon reduction scenarios outlined by the CCC to 2035 involve consumers making different choices. What we eat, drive, the products we buy and how we heat our homes are all set to change drastically.

Low carbon electricity now makes up half of the UK’s energy supply and emissions have been cut to near half of 1990 levels

Survey after survey reveals consumer concern about climate change and the wider environmental crisis. And we can see this translate into consumer spending habits. In 2019 UK consumers spent £41 billion on ‘ethical’ goods and services, roughly four times as much as two decades ago.

We also know consumer concerns about the environment extend to how they see Britain’s future as a global trading nation after leaving the European Union. When Which? carried out a series of in-depth conversations on future trade policy with almost 100 people from five regions around the UK, participants saw a real opportunity to promote green trade that would benefit not only the UK, but the whole world.   

Yet the change we have seen to date in consumer behaviour is light years away from the changes around the corner. To meet net zero out go gas boilers and in come electric heat pumps, as 29 million homes undergo a low-carbon change. Likewise, it’s goodbye to petrol and diesel as 32 million cars go electric, while we need to cut our meat and dairy consumption by a fifth.

Underpinning these shifts are four basic behaviour steps consumers will take to ‘go green’. Stopping or reducing consumption, for instance eating less meat or buying fewer goods. Buying green, such as switching to an electric car, or a renewable energy supplier. Conserving resources, repairing and re-using products, switching appliances off and insulating their homes. And finally disposing more sustainably, be that reducing food waste or recycling more effectively.

In 2019 UK consumers spent £41 billion on ‘ethical’ goods and services, roughly four times as much as two decades ago

But it is clear there are significant barriers to consumers ‘going green’ and often a lack of knowledge or dissonance between activity and impact. For instance, though 80% of consumers are concerned about climate change only half are aware that gas boilers produce emissions.

Most consumers cite lack of time and knowledge but the picture is a more complex web of practical and personal barriers. From a practical perspective the clear availability of alternatives, say a reliable public transport network over the ease and convenience of driving a car, and simply not having the right information to make an informed choice, can make sustainable decision-making complex and overwhelming. For instance, inconsistent plastic labelling and a postcode lottery of waste recycling options makes simple disposal a confusing everyday task. Throw in greenwashing and feelings of mistrust and powerlessness add to the sense of consumer confusion.

Consumers typically make choices based on a combination of factors – for instance choosing solar panels to save on energy bills, or ditching the car to ride a bike for healthy lifestyle choices. The importance of convenience, value and lifestyle mean the ‘go green’ choice is rarely made in isolation.

But above all else it is cost that is cited as the key barrier. For instance, the price of electric cars is prohibitive and the fragmented and confusing public charging network ensures early adopters either have to be extremely brave and good planners or have off-road parking and the means to get a charger installed at home. Though there is evidence to show that those on higher incomes are indeed willing to pay the premium, making ‘going green’ just for the wealthy would inevitably mean the UK misses hitting its net zero climate targets.

Most consumers say they are happy to make the big changes to meet net zero – making their homes more energy efficient, switching to low-carbon heating and switching to an electric car. But it’s clear they need help, advice and financial support to make that switch and overcome the barriers to change.

Most see government as having the key role here but from business, clarity, simplicity and affordable options are vital too. It’s clear that the challenge ahead is huge, but so are the potential rewards for businesses that take time to really understand consumer concerns and priorities around ‘going green’.

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