BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) - Eat misshapen veg, wash clothes in cold water, drive more slowly and recycle? It is perhaps no surprise that companies say persuading consumers to go green is a big challenge.
As negotiators seek a deal to reduce global emissions at the U.N. talks in Paris, companies are under increasing pressure to account for all their carbon emissions, from manufacturing all the way through to packaging and a product’s disposal.
Businesses have been lining up to announce they will power their factories by renewable energy or source raw materials from sustainably managed forests and farms, but many say it is up to consumers too to change the way they use their products.
Years after detergents were developed to wash clothes in cold water, many people still turn up the dial. Electric car sales have been as sluggish as their perceived performance on the road, and tonnes of food and clothing still choke landfills.
Unilever, maker of Dove soap, estimates that customers are responsible for 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its products, compared to just 21 percent for the raw materials used to make them. The consumer goods giant has been promoting shorter showers - admittedly with limited success.
“It is far easier to get a consumer to switch their purchase behavior from a less sustainable product to a more sustainable product than it is to influence how people use the products,” said Sally Uren, head of Forum for the Future, a non-profit that works with business and government on sustainability issues.
Swedish-based fashion chain Hennes & Mauritz says the way clothes are cared for at home accounts for more than a quarter of the emissions during a garment’s life. All H&M clothes now carry labels that recommend washing at lower temperatures.
Irit Tamir, senior advocacy adviser at campaign group Oxfam, however, says companies can’t shift too much of the onus onto consumers. Businesses should focus on reducing their own emissions and those of their suppliers, while government should do more to encourage behaviors like recycling, she says.
“We need consumers to be engaged as well, but if we put too much of a focus on the consumer we are letting companies off the hook in terms of their own responsibility,” she said.
Chip Bergh, chief executive of Levi Strauss [LEVST.UL], tries to lead by example. He says he hardly ever washes his jeans, noting that consumers are responsible for 50 percent of the water used in the lifecycle of the average pair.
“I know that sounds totally disgusting but believe me, it can be done. You can spot clean it, you can air dry it. It’s fine. I have yet to get a skin disease,” he joked last year.
But Anna Walker, Levi Strauss’s senior director of global policy, said few people are following Bergh’s example:
“Consumer behavior is the toughest thing to change.”
More people now expect global warming will negatively affect them during their lifetime, a global survey by the National Geographic Society and GlobeScan found. However, sustainable behavior in areas from housing to transport, food and consumer goods actually fell in Canada, China, Germany, Japan and the United States between 2012 and 2014, the same survey showed.
“Consumers need more encouragement from peers as well as enablement and better leadership from companies and governments to lighten their own impact,” said GlobeScan’s Eric Whan.
Younger consumers, particularly the 18-30 year-olds dubbed the millennials, are seen as more malleable, but also more likely to expect big brands to do the heavy lifting for them.
Whan noted that products like smartphones that become obsolete in a relatively short time was leading to more disposability.
Unilever, which has set itself the goal of halving the environmental footprint in the making and use of its products by 2020, tweaks formulations and promotes product innovations like dry shampoo. But it admits that greenhouse gas impact per consumer use has risen by around 4 percent since 2010, partly because it has struggled to change bathing and shower habits.
British retailer Marks & Spencer had to cut a target to get its customers to recycle millions of items of clothing after disappointing take-up for its initiative to collect garments for recycling.
Procter & Gamble, behind brands like Tide and Ariel, sees some progress in encouraging the use of cold water detergent as it focuses its marketing on saving energy rather than saving the environment. It estimates that 53 percent of global machine loads were washed in cold water last year, up from 36 percent in 2010/11, but still far from the P&G target of 70 percent by 2020.
IKEA [IKEA.UL], the world’s biggest furniture retailer, has managed to get its customers to switch from incandescent bulbs to energy-efficient LEDs by slashing prices.
“We went super slim on margin to create the scale,” said Steve Howard, head of sustainability at IKEA. “It’s about making things really convenient. We will not be able to push things that make it harder for people.”
Companies are also realizing the need to bundle their resources to change entrenched consumer habits. Detergent makers and fashion retailers have worked together to promote washing clothes at lower temperatures, while top retailers and food companies have jointly pledged to help halve per capita food waste at the consumer level by 2030.
The commitment was made by members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of 400 retailers and manufacturers, which said if food waste were a country, its carbon footprint would be third after China and the United States.
British retailer Tesco, a CGF member, said it will end multi-buy offers on larger packs of bagged salad after admitting that 68 percent goes to waste, and will instead introduce twin-pack ‘eat me now, eat me later’ offers.
Ignacio Gavilan, the forum’s sustainability director, said food retailers and producers had made major progress in improving their own operations, which account for about a third of food wasted, and are now trying to influence consumers, which account for another third.
“It’s about making sure they make the right choices, but it’s easier said than done,” he said.
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Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Susan Fenton