Morals or Money?
The Sustainability conversation hinges on these levers.
What’s the best way to convince people to change how they live? What they buy? To be more sustainable?
On one hand, we can urge people to take care of the earth because it’s the right thing to do.
That’s the morals case.
This includes appealing to peoples’ sense of fairness and rightness and desires to leave a good healthy world for future generations.
While that is a compelling draw in many arenas, the moral case doesn’t fly in the business world or with all groups of people.
The other hand says that the way to sell Sustainability is to demonstrate that there will be cost savings and revenue opportunities.
That’s the money case.
Convince your CFO that making the supply chain more efficient (and reducing carbon emissions) will save money and speed time to market.
Or show your neighbor that swapping out incandescents for CFLs will lower his energy bill.
So which approach is more effective?
Guardian writer Adam Corner examines the morals-or-money research in this new article and comes out on the morals side.
A recent Dutch study suggests that engaging the public in the moral rather than economic case for sustainability might be more effective, with lessons to be learned at policy level
He followed up a few days later another article that applies this research to the real-world roll out of the UK’s new Green Deal energy efficiency program.
For one, promoting the Green Deal to people in this way will do absolutely nothing to make the next big initiative – perhaps a big push on public transport – any easier. No-one is being encouraged to think about what climate change means, or how different behaviours (around the home, and when commuting, for example) might be related. No-one is being encouraged to think about climate change at all.
The exclusively economic framing of the government’s flagship public engagement policy sends a clear message: we should take part in the Green Deal because we might make a few quid – or at worst, not lose any.
As Corner points out, the research shows that when incentives disappear, so do the new behaviors. By focusing too much on the money, he argues, the UK government might be missing a huge opportunity to start a game-changing conversation about Climate Change.
The practical, rubber-meets-the-road answer of course, as with any complex problem, is that we need to use all the persuasions available to us. Not morals or money. Both.
The morals case asks us to change our behaviors for the future, and the money case helps bridge the gap to get there.
I believe–and incentives research backs me up–that when you give people the chance to do the right thing, with a full understanding of what’s at stake and how much things cost–more often than not, they will.