Closing the value action gap
The theory of reasoned action – developed in the late 1960s – suggests a clear relationship between attitude and behaviours.
In other words, “We humans tend to act according to our individual attitudes and subjective norms/beliefs”. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But it’s not always as easy as that.
Is “re-thinking” enough?
We recently came across an essay collection inspired by the BBC podcast Rethink. The podcast's aim is that “an incredible breadth of speakers will offer their unique insights into the potential for change within their professions and areas of expertise”. Thought leaders from Pope Francis and Steven Pinker all the way to the Dalai Lama reflect on how to “re-think” the world after the pandemic. Their ideas are certainly thought-provoking. In the context of climate change, however, we started wondering: Is “re-thinking” really enough? Shouldn’t we be taking it one step further and focusing our efforts on “re-building”, “re-designing”, “re-…”? In other words: It’s not enough to merely be inspired by those words of wisdom. It’s time to act on them and accelerate the pace towards a more sustainable post-COVID world.
Are we finally waking up?
Indeed, much change has been set in motion. In the wake of COP26, there was a certain spirit of optimism to finally get things underway. In 2021, among other things:
- The EU launched the Fit for 55 climate package in 2021
- The number of Fortune 500 companies with major climate goals set for 2030 increased by more than a quarter from 2020
- Financial investors keep increasing their focus on sustainability criteria, which we at AFRY, for instance, see in the rise of requests for ESG due diligences from our clients and the increasing intervention of activist investors
Still, things are not (yet) moving fast enough. The most recent IPCC report can no longer be understood as a wake-up call. It’s more of a cry for help. It’s the old theme all over again: We have the knowledge (more than ever before). We have the tools (better ones than ever before). But we still do not apply them properly. What is holding us back? Perhaps a brief look into individual behaviour helps to understand this conundrum bottom-up.
From attitudes to actions
There have been countless studies pointing in the same direction: When asked about their personal values and beliefs, people often tend to highlight their concern for the environment, for ethical consumption, and so on. However, these attitudes often do not directly translate into sufficient action...yet.
The term "value-action gap" has been around for some time now. In 2006, the UK’s former Sustainable Development Commission defined the value-action gap as “the observed disparity between people's reported concerns about key environmental, social, economic or ethical concerns and the lifestyle or purchasing decisions that they make in practice”. So what causes this obvious disparity? We see various broad categories, most prominently:
- External restrictions, such as individuals’ available budget or conflicting obligations: Individuals simply can’t afford more eco-friendly products (or at least, they think they can’t)
- Lack of information, such as the impact of individual choices: Individuals may simply not be aware of, or frequently think about, the full impact of certain behaviours, for instance the carbon footprint caused by their weekly online shopping
- Convenience or comfort, as it takes significant (mental) energy to change long-standing habits and behaviours even against better knowledge
- Responsibility barriers, as individuals often feel overpowered and do not believe that their small, individual contribution towards a greater good could change anything
So where should we start? For once, it is crucial to acknowledge that we all can make a difference. Referring back to one of the Rethink essays, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah even goes one step further: “Morality requires us to do our part in collective practices that are good for the community, even when one single violation poses little threat. What’s important is that we can pull off something wonderful if we all stick [together].”
Appiah cites the face mask during the pandemic as a small, individual sacrifice for the greater good of society. And surely - if we can all cover our faces to protect each other, we can certainly turn down our radiators by one degree next winter. Or simply make sure our car’s tyres are properly inflated.
We have just established that re-thinking is no longer enough (and hasn’t been for quite a while …). We see that there is a certain sense of impending change in the air. But we also observe that we are still trapped in the value-action gap. So how can we work towards closing this gap? And what does this mean on an organisational level – within the energy world, in particular?
In our next blog post, we will have a closer look at insights from behavioural economics. We will explore how these insights may give us the necessary tools to overcome both individual and organisational inertia. And how those will help to bridge the value-action gap. In the meanwhile, let us know your thoughts in the comments section and stay tuned for our own ideas.