Tara Norton, Director, Advisory Services, BSR

At the BSR Spring Forum 2014, we will take an in-depth look at how business engages with consumers on living more sustainably. I sat down with one of our panelists, Marks & Spencer Director of Sustainable Business Mike Barry, to discuss his views on this challenging topic.

Which comes first: people changing their lifestyles and patterns of consumption, or businesses developing low-carbon products and services?

Business and government have to lead first. They have to show that they have done everything they can, and then they can ask people to join the journey.

Of our consumers, we find that 10 percent are “green consumers,” who will actively participate, 20 percent will never connect with this agenda, and 70 percent are in the middle, telling us to take the lead. This last group is saying that it is up to us to strip carbon out of our business, supply chain, and products. They don’t want a lecture; they don’t want to change their lifestyles too much. They say, “When we see that Big Business and Big Government have done all you can, then you can knock on my door and ask me to change things.”

At Marks & Spencer, how do you talk to your customers about low-carbon lifestyles?

When you do ask customers to get involved, you have to ask them to take action that is relevant to their day-to-day lives, not random interventions. Some of the problems that emerged with carbon labels came from the fact that people saw it as business passing the buck to consumers.

The number one way people can reduce the carbon footprint of clothing is by recycling it. We have had success with Schwopping because consumers have told us that it is relevant to them, makes sense in terms of their relationship with Marks & Spencer, and that we have made it easy and compelling.

We also think about normalization and language. For example, we know that a low-carbon lifestyle involves eating less meat. But to go to people today and ask them to give up meat is too complicated. Perhaps there will be a point over the next 5-10 years where the concept of a low or reduced meat diet will resonate with people, but today, it has to be framed in terms of a really delicious alternative. We can’t talk to consumers about banning things and stopping things. We need to talk about aspirational food, delicious food, and food of the world that also happens to be vegetarian.

The recent IPCC climate reports are frightening and call for urgent change. Is asking consumers to make these kinds of incremental changes enough?

The solutions are ultimately about a low-carbon and low-energy system, which requires billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure. Can consumers do anything meaningful about this? No, they can’t. There is not much beyond making these incremental changes, and perhaps voting for the right policies, that people can do as individuals. The really big things will come from business and government.

What do you personally do to live a low-carbon lifestyle?

I live a low-carbon lifestyle that is reasonable for most average consumers; I am “mainstream green.” I commute by train. We recycle all that we can. We minimize food waste. We don’t fly for holidays (although I can’t say we won’t in the future). We’re modernizing our old house to make it more efficient—adding solar to the roof.

I do what we can reasonably expect any consumer to do: Reduce transport, think about what you eat, and don’t waste.

Join us at the BSR Spring Forum 2014, in Paris June 11-12, to explore low-carbon lifestyles and other topics to catalyze bold, ambitious action by business on climate change.