Knowledge for better food systems

Pamphlet: Climate Change and Sustainable Consumption: What do the public think is fair?

This pamphlet examines research undertaken by the Fabian Society which was  commissioned and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The work, through a series of focus groups, explored ways that people's sense of fairness around sustainable consumption and climate change could be used to build public support for behaviour change and sustainability policies.

The key points emerging from the research are as follows:

  1. Fairness and citizenship can drive support for sustainable consumption – but only if people understand the social context of behaviour (ie. if they understand the consequences of behaviours on resource scarcity and so forth).
  2. Ensuring everyone co-operates is key for perceptions of fairness – so regulation and enforcement can sometimes be crucial for sustaining public support for behaviour change.
  3. People want to feel that they are co-operating in an endeavour. Even if compulsion is used, people want measures to target the product or activity rather than the individual.
  4. People think sustainability policies should be progressive: the greatest burdens of behaviour change should be on those with the greatest ability to reduce their consumption or to finance reductions in their consumption.
  5. ‘Economic’ approaches, and specifically taxation, are often seen to fail the fairness test although they are supported in some contexts.
  6. It is important to understand the difference between people liking a policy and supporting a policy because they see it as legitimate.

It concludes:

There is an important lesson here about linking the argument for behaviour change to the actual reasons why we want to prevent climate change. Government approaches to behaviour change often bypass these concerns and are generally aimed at addressing people as consumers and appealing to self-interest. However, these focus groups show that fairness issues can be an important factor in building support for action. It should be noted that, despite the strong support expressed for behaviour change and environmental policies during the focus groups, there was no great desire to change behaviour among participants – certainly no sense that people would enjoy having to make lifestyle changes. This is not inconsistent, but testament to an important distinction: that between liking a policy on the one hand and supporting a policy because you think it is necessary and legitimate on the other. The way in which the UK and many other countries have created widespread public acceptance of, and compliance with, frameworks like tax systems and speed limits is not by trying to make paying tax or driving slower to seem attractive, but by ensuring people understand the broader social issues at stake and see the behavioural requirements as necessary and legitimate. Similarly, attempts by government, industry and NGOs to encourage behaviour change, or to build support for measures to ensure sustainable consumption, may well be more effective if they seek to generate a sense of public legitimacy.



Horton T and Doron N (2012). Climate Change and Sustainable Consumption: What do the public think is fair? Joseph Rowntree Foundation

You can download the report via the Fabians website, here or the JRF website here.

You can read related research by browsing the following categories of our research library:

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