Preparing some notes for a panel session at next week’s CBI forum on Climate Change, I am struck by how top-down the world still really is and suddenly alarmed that I remain in a narrow minority of those wishing and willing to embrace bottom-up democracy and ride the chaos of new networks.
The CBI intro blurb hits all the right notes – appreciating, at heart, that consumers are the essential drivers for change. But herein lies the rub: ‘the government and business must work to empower consumers through education, communication and incentives to make low-carbon choices’. This is true – but only to a point. It is the use of the empower word that worries me most: empowerment is of course needed but it cannot just remain in the gift of traditional authority.
First, stop thinking of citizens as consumers. The consumerisation of civic society – started in the inter-war years and accelerated by the marketing frenzies of the latter half of the twentieth century – generated the very imbalance of Wants and Needs which we are all now struggling to re-calibrate. We urgently need to change our language. Citizen values must supplant consumer desires. Until we properly understand this, we will never be able to break through and into a low carbon economy and build a more value-rich, sustainable and wellbeing world.
Second, Citizens are equal partners in the drive for change. ‘Empowering’ consumers suggests this is somehow in the gift of business and government and that empowerment can only be secured through marketing initiative and (ironically) by effectively consumerising the Climate Change debate. In Citizen Renaissance, we call for a new tripartite contract between Business, Government and Citizens – recognising that we, the people, must now stand as equals within a refreshed democracy, with citizens holding business and governments to account. This is because…
Third, Digital changes the game forever. The emergence of new networks heralds not only the opportunity for citizens to cluster and campaign around specific issues of either broad or narrow interest, but also inherently demands transparency and fosters the direct accountability of business and governments to the citizens they are meant to serve. Digital Britain is too often articulated merely as a way of accessing broadband and entertainment channels, whereas in fact it offers a real chance to refresh democracy. In other words…
Fourth, invert the power pyramid. The CBI notes that the consumer is the essential driver for change through his / her purchasing power; while this of course holds true, the real drive for change will come through the new networks / accountability / transparency points above. Rather than selling to consumers, we all need to listen to citizens and root our listening and our thinking in true civic values – pride, prudence, courage, justice, respect and trust – as well as re-build a real sense of community and society. These are the very values that consumerism has badly eroded over the past few decades (which takes us right back to point one above). Putting planetary needs within this civic framework is the proper starting point for genuine reformation and behavioural change.
Fifth, invert the power in the workplace, as well as the shopping mall. Citizen power does not start at the till point. In the business context, employees must have a voice as equal and as powerful as customers and shareholders when it comes to issues surrounding Climate Change, Supply Chain Ethics and Sustainability (note: this trend is validated by recent Edelman Trust data). The fight for carbon reduction can therefore start within an organisation, long before a product or a service reaches the end customer. New business structures (based on co-operative and mutualised models) can help enshrine active and positive citizen participation from the outset.
In the wider context of this all, the key word is ‘engagement’. We no longer live in a transmission society, nor is ‘the consumer’ a passive member of a benign audience grouping dreamed up by a marketing wonk. Engagement demands the (a) acknowledgement and (b) advancement of shared interests in a hyper-connected world of many stakeholders and interest groups. In very simple terms, nothing works in isolation anymore. Just as it is fundamentally wrong to mislabel citizens as consumers, so it is equally dangerous to view ‘consumption’ as the end result of the working of governments, businesses and brands. Those consumers who are in fact citizens can drive the change and thus nail the pervasive and corroding consumption myth.