This story is part of an Ashoka series in collaboration with Salt, spotlighting leading young innovators to support the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards, a global competition launched by Unilever in partnership with Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. To follow the conversation on Twitter, search #GlobalGoals for a #BrightFuture.
There is no simple fix for climate change. There’s the issue of coal-powered increases in earth’s average temperature, melting ice sheets and rising sea levels, the acidification of oceans and mass extinctions, as well as health hazards: air pollution kills more people every year than HIV and Malaria combined. But there are solutions that will guide us into our new world. Social entrepreneur Will Byrne is working on one of them.
A false choice
“What turns a lot of people off, in my experience, or makes people feel like climate action is a pipe dream, is the played-out argument that all we can do is reduce our consumption, that being consumers is this evil, shameful thing,” Byrne said. He’s ardent that pitting consumerism against active citizenship is a false choice.
“Everyone consumes stuff. We’re living beings. We’re going to keep consuming food and energy and continue buying cars, or whatever it is that replaces cars that are more energy efficient. But if you show people that consumption can be a civic act, an act by which they can make broader impact … it’s this incredibly rich area for driving change that is largely unexplored.” In other words, we need not abandon our role as consumers to beat back climate change and its impacts. While it is obvious that no individual action—no matter how virtuous—will be enough, the spending power of a group can transform the very structure of society by incentivising both corporations and governments to “do good.”
Byrne is a pioneer of “civic consumption.” It’s a mechanism for social change he began testing in 2009 as a co-founder of Groundswell, the D.C.-based clean energy nonprofit. Groundswell has successfully “nudged” 4,000 families in five East Coast states to power their homes with solar and wind power and completed nearly $20 million in community-driven sustainability projects.
By giving people an easy way to buy together, clean energy became cost-competitive with dirty power. Many participating residents enjoyed savings. In the process, civic consumption proved an effective nudge for corporations. As the Groundswell community upped consumer demand for renewable energy, even Fortune 500 energy companies applied to take part in building a clean energy future. Going green makes good business sense, after all. Over the past five years, U.S. coal producers have lost 76 per cent of their value and been forced to shut down hundreds of mines, in part thanks to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Increasingly, where you find clean power you find profits.
“We began to flip the power dynamic in the industry,” Byrne said. “Energy is one of the world’s most monopolistic industries, but by bringing consumers together, we were shifting the industry’s practices from the bottom up, without politics or regulation.” Byrne is now honing the civic consumption model for application beyond the energy sector as a civic innovation fellow at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. The “d.school.” And he believes the future of the model will be built on conditional transactions: crowdfunding mechanics, but with action-oriented campaigns instead of all-or-nothing funding.
Campaigns will tip not when a certain amount of money has been raised, but when an institution takes an action that is good for society or the environment. Imagine you like burritos (perhaps not much of a stretch) but also care about living wages for fast food workers. You could pledge to buy a $50 gift card to your favorite Mexican grill as soonas the company agreed to raise wages for all of its hourly workers. Alone you’d be ignored. But the the twist is that 100,000 of your friends would make the very same deal.
“It’s a more solutions-oriented version of an online petition,” Byrne said. “And one of the most promising areas for application of this tool, actually, is supporting the student-led divestment movement, allowing engaged alumni to put their money where their mouth is.” Since 2012, students have pushed hundreds of universities to withdraw investments from fossil fuel industry holdings (oil, coal, gas). Civic consumption can accelerate the rate of divestment. The next time your university asks for a donations, Byrne said, you and the rest of your class will be able to make conditional pledges to say, ‘Yes, we’ll give, as soon as you stop supporting companies that burn fossil fuels.’ This approach creates “wins” for all parties. Students have a way to command the attention of their schools and the responsive institutions are rewarded with a larger, more engaged donor base.
Civic consumption is rooted in behavioural science, which may relieve pressure on pro-social public policy strategies. It inspires collective action, which will likely do away with conspicuous conservation, where, for example, people install solar panels on shadier, street-facing sides of their roofs in an effort to signal how green they are to neighbours. And as the industrialized workforce that made labor unions so powerful in the early 20th century continues to shrink, people’s leverage lies more and more in their buying decisions: consumer spending already drives nearly half of the economic activity in the United States.
“As someone who has worked to empower people to make change in both politics and the marketplace, I think consumer action will be a linchpin mechanism for social change in the 21st century,” Byrne said. “I’m extremely optimistic about that.” Climate action cannot wait. Civic consumption has the potential to make sustainable development efforts not just a “moral obligation,” but a business imperative.
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This article first appeared on Virgin Unite.