Turns out, sustainability all comes down to unit economics. When we make one eco-friendly decision over a less planet-friendly option, our individual motivation seems to stem from price, rather than moral persuasions. This suggests that what needs to happen – if we want to stand a chance against our escalating climate emergency and planetary degradation – is mass affordability of sustainable alternatives on a structural level to incentivise individual adoption.
We all like to believe that our individual actions for the planet comes from moral persuasions, but we’re wrong. As Axios energy journalist Amy Harder confessed that despite covering climate topics, she, like most people, is “driven mostly by economic incentives.” While she flies across countries to cover conferences and key industry meetings, she does not buy carbon offsetting programs – because she doesn’t want to pay more than what are “already expensive flights.” And this isn’t a single anecdote. Sure, we can all relate to Amy, so let’s be real: even in our own daily lives, our habits change only when costs are involved.
This is bolstered by scientific findings too. In a 2018 University of Chicago study, which recruited participants from 691 households in Kyoto, Japan, researchers found that individuals were more persuaded by economic incentives than moral reasons when it came to committing to energy-conserving behaviour. In other words, higher costs drove people to voluntarily conserve more energy, and for longer. What is even more interesting is that this survey involved participants from Japan, a country where, more than anywhere else, the importance of morality is a defining facet of their culture and governs social conventions.
Right now, a good number of sustainable habits correspond to saving a buck. Eliminating vampire energy, the electricity drawn out through plugged in but “turned off” devices, is a good example. Taking shorter showers to save on both a precious resource and your water bill. Choosing the meat-free option when you dine out is wallet and carbon friendly.
But many things still buck this trend: what is cost-efficient does not necessarily always translate to what is sustainable or responsible. While many claim that sustainable fashion can always be affordable, it can realistically be quite expensive if we’re not talking about shopping second-hand at thrift stores. Sourcing costly eco-friendly natural materials, for instance, and to ensure those making your garments are paid a fair wage, simply costs more. Choosing the natural, plastic-free cosmetics brand, also sometimes costs more than the clinical plastic tube of body lotion found in your local supermarket aisles. Supporting climate-friendly projects via a subscription donation going towards forest restoration programs would put a dent in your wallet every single month. Renewable energy has yet to become cheaper option compared to the national grid in many areas (although the Chinese solar energy is levelling this trend).
What this shows us is that inspiring voluntary action for the planet ultimately comes down to pricing – and if we are to be able to instigate a mass shift towards sustainable individual choices, they need to be affordable (and accessible). If the fossil fuel industry continues to be subsidised by governments around the world, how can we expect renewables to be adopted by every consumer en masse? The coal, oil and gas industry is propped up by more than US$370 billion every year compared to $100 billion for the clean renewable energy sector. The Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has spoken out against this nonsense: just 10% to 30 % of the annual subsidies that go to fossil fuels could pay for a worldwide transition to clean energy.
Even efforts to fix our broken global food system is being undermined by subsidies that disincentives consumers from choosing less carbon intensive foods. According to Metonomics, the American government spends US$38 billion each year to subsidise the meat and dairy industries, compared to a tiny fraction of 0.04% of that number going to the fruit and vegetables sector. For the everyday consumer, this means that if the retail price of an average Big Mac included the hidden expenses offloaded by subsidies, it would cost US$13 instead of the average $5 bill.
Bottom line: pushing for individual actions to solve our climate crisis needs that extra economic boost and this will come down to governments, policymakers and giant corporations have to instigate systemic, structural changes to make these options more available and less difficult for consumers to adopt.
Lead image courtesy of iStock images.