At the end of last year I joined the New Zealand delegation in Montreal to engage with world leaders, business groups and NGOs from around the world at the 11th Climate Change Conference, the first following the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Given the sub-zero temperature you could be excused for wondering whether global warming was being selective, but no one present doubted the need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although differences clearly exist on the best course of action.
At conference attended by 190 nations and represented by 10,000 delegates, it’s easy to think that the whole world is thinking about climate change in particular and sustainability in general. Once back home, reality kicked in – sustainability is not an obvious discussion topic around the dinner table. But the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. People do care about issues relating to sustainability but only in as far as it means something to them directly. The same is also true for businesses.
A New Zealand company, Moxie, conducted telling piece of research recently about consumer attitudes to “sustainable” goods and services as the first recipient of new Sustainability Fund which has been launched by Shell New Zealand for SMEs. The research sought to validate work conducted in the United States which finds consumer market of over 30 percent of people who actively seek products and services that meet their individual, global, social and environmental values.
Moxie has completed research to understand New Zealanders’ values, attitudes and behaviours in this area. So do they exist here in New Zealand? And if so, is it similar in size to the offshore market? According to this local research the answer is very definite yes. And it’s market that is measured in the millions.
But the 26 percent of New Zealanders in this group don’t consider themselves to be “green” and indeed many would be horrified to be categorised as such. They don’t want to be seen shopping at the organic counter in the supermarket, but want supermarkets and brands to include this range of products in the mainstream aisles. This is not yuppie, hippy group but smart informed people who want the bene-fits of modern lifestyle but delivered in way that meets their values. They do not want to be treated differently or expected to shop differently.
There are, of course, always going to be early adopters just as there are companies that have taken leadership role in implementing sustainable business practices.
A second piece of research conducted on behalf of the Business Council by UMR Research looks specifically at what sustainable development means across the wider population and in particular what we might consider the “middle majority”. This research focused on “pragmatists” and so called “ho-hummers” – not people who have got on board the sustainability bus early.
At the heart of the problem is the term itself. “Sustainable development” is not everyday language. But talk to people about water, the energy debate, waste, population growth, retirement or skills shortage and they immediately have opinions. Those of us engaged in promoting sustainable development just need to use language and subjects which resonate with the audience we are talking to rather than talking in lofty terms about general concepts. Preaching to the already converted does not widen support for sustainable practices.
What’s important for New Zealanders is the ability to go to the beach, fish or go for bush walks; and to have clean air and waterways. business must take these Kiwi values into account when it establishes new operations, develops new products or builds new infrastructure. This will mean tradeoffs: for example, between building new houses or roads to cope with the growing population and preserving green fields.
What ultimately comes across through all this research is that support for sustainable development is something of “motherhood and apple pie” proposition because the need to plan for the future is blindingly obvious to most of us.
That people are genuinely interested sends clear signal to business that this is market opportunity rather than another compliance issue. The opportunity doesn’t lie in making existing products and services “greener” but in providing new and innovative solutions that meet with people’s lifestyle needs and personal values.
New Zealand’s smallness and remoteness from major markets means people can’t see what their individual action can do in the face of much bigger nations’ influence. It is different story if people are asked about issues such as water, vehicle emissions or, for SMEs, skill shortages.
Last month, I made my own New Year’s resolution to talk less about sustainable development and to talk more about its component parts. That way we can get debate going on issues that will be of interest to all New Zealanders.

Peter Neilson is chief executive of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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