It is hard to deny that certain forms of environmentalism, often (but certainly not exclusively) when climate change is involved, take on strong religious characteristics, frequently of a distinctly millenarian nature.
However hard it may be to deny that eminently self-evident fact, plenty do, which made it refreshing to read this in an article in the Financial Times by Judith Evans:
As the oat milk brand Oatly spread across the world last year, its chief executive, Toni Petersson, said his product — which boasts lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional dairy — was not just another drink.
“For people today, sustainability is more of an ideology. It’s a structured belief system, almost like a religion . . . but it’s relied on what the science says,” Petersson said. “And I think we as a company have a licence to take a place in that ideology.”
Oatly, the Blackstone-backed vegan milk company which on Monday filed to float on Nasdaq, said it would consider adding a listing in Hong Kong within the next two years, citing its relationship with a Chinese state-owned conglomerate. China Resources owns about 30 per cent of the Swedish group through a 50/50 joint venture with the Belgian family investment group Verlinvest, which holds 60 per cent in Oatly.
But back to the FT’s Evans:
Petersson has also put his finger on something about consumers’ behaviour when it comes to sustainable products. What had been a niche pursuit has now become, for many, an article of faith.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom in consumer goods was that people would happily express their green preferences in surveys and largely discard them at the door of the supermarket, like parishioners who attend church only at Christmas.
But a surge in sales of green-marketed products like Oatly, whose revenues were around $400m last year, shows this assumption to be outdated. Petersson says that, in Oatly’s key markets, between 60 and 70 per cent of buyers only started buying plant milk in the past two years.
Market researchers are scrambling to keep pace with this trend and produce a more accurate portrait of the green consumer. Two consultancies, Brodie and Public First, surveyed thousands of people in the UK and US this year, dividing them up by attitudes. Almost all expressed some concern about climate change. About a fifth were “corporate optimists”, who have significant faith in business to solve environmental problems. They like to buy green and ethical products and are prepared to pay more for them. But they have a bias towards “easy wins” like recycling and smart energy meters. They are less likely to make drastic moves like vegetarianism or giving up flying.
Vegetarianism? Oh yes.
There is, to be sure, a moral case for vegetarianism unrelated to climate change, but the idea that people giving up meat in the West (which is really what is under discussion) will make a significant difference to the climate is unconvincing. Rather, this is just one environmentalist variant of the pointless asceticism common to a good number of ideologies, philosophies, and religions, and a telling one at that. As I noted in a recent article on climate change and meat-eating:
The fact that establishing rules governing what people eat is also a powerful instrument of psychological and social control is no coincidence.
But back to that survey:
Another group, “big power sceptics”, is smaller — 14 per cent in the UK, 9 per cent in the US. They are more despairing of the will of corporates and governments to tackle climate change, but are inclined to lifestyle changes such as giving up meat and buying second-hand. They tend to boycott, to protest and to pursue social media activism.
Other segments are less prepared to change. “Commercial realists” believe other factors, like the economy, must come first. “Pessimistic free-marketeers” think businesses are unlikely to change because they lack financial incentives to do so.
One of the largest groups is the “ethically disenfranchised”, who are too confused by sustainability jargon and dilemmas to act.
“Ethically disenfranchised.” I’ll just let that stand there.
A majority of consumers have not so far fully embraced buying green. Reaching them is a challenge not just for commercial marketers but for governments seeking to push populations towards green energy, local holidays and electric vehicles.