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Fear vs Hope: How Might the Longevity Market Approach Climate Change?

Michael A. Smyer April 22, 2019
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What is the story you’re telling yourself about climate change and business?

In a recent interview, New York Times journalist Nathaniel Rich contrasted two different approaches to moving people to act on climate change: fear or hope. He reflected on which type of narrative is most likely to move people to act. We could ask the same questions about the business community: Which do you think would motivate you, your employees and your board more? Fear? Hope?

If fear is your answer, you may agree with Simon Mainwaring, founder and CEO of We First. In a recent Forbes article he writes “Climate change will damage economies, devastate populations, increase resource scarcity and dramatically impact the cost of doing business. So for both humanitarian and business reasons, it is imperative that companies of all sizes take action.”

A recent Forrester report titled Adapt To Climate Change Or Face Extinction echoes this warning for businesses. As does legendary investor and climate advocate Jeremy Grantham. When asked to prioritize the risk that climate change poses for investors and businesses, he says “It is the single most important issue for the next 50 years as far as the eye can see. Decarbonizing the economy is the most important movement in industry and the economy since the Industrial Revolution… It will be massive. The companies that get it and understand the speed at which things are moving will win.”

Fear of climate change’s impact could well motivate you to act. If not fear of extinction, then fear of the bottom line.

If hope is more to your liking, there are some signs that the business community can have a big impact and is beginning to act. A 2016 United Nations report estimates that the global business community could make meaningful cuts to greenhouse gas emissions—inspiring the emergence of business coalitions like We Mean Business, through which 880 companies are united in the goal of “accelerating the zero carbon transition.” Other coalitions focus on specific strategies such as renewable power or energy productivity. 

There is evidence that consumers respond to a hopeful approach. A We First study found that consumers are increasingly rewarding brands that align with their own values: 87% would purchase a product based on values and 76% would boycott a brand that supporting an issue contrary to their beliefs. In addition, 76% of Americans expect companies to support climate change action.

Whether you are fearful or hopeful, it’s important to understand the story you are telling yourself and others about your business and climate change. As Mainwaring says, “Climate action offers companies excellent storytelling potential to be used in marketing initiatives to ensure their brands are meaningful and relevant to consumers because they align around shared values.”

Bringing the Story to the Longevity Market

I had just finished giving my first talk outlining my new project Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World. For the small audience of climate researchers, I stressed the importance of linking two global patterns: population aging and climate change.

Twenty feet away from me, the world-class climate scientist in the audience had a one-word response: “Huh.”

I had one thought: “This is not going very well.”

Over the next few months, though, as I visited several scientists, each responded with “Huh.” I came to realize that “Huh” is science talk for “That’s not a crazy idea. I just never thought about it.” That was the point of my new venture: the climate community had never thought of older adults as a potential resource for climate action.

The business community may be making the same mistake. Earth Day is a perfect time to change that.

There is a myth that older folks don’t care about climate change. But it’s just that—a myth. Older adults care as much or more about climate change as other generations.

IKEA recently released a Climate Action Report focused on consumers’ perceptions of climate change. Drawing on data from more than 14,000 consumers in 14 countries, IKEA differentiated among four profiles: optimists, who feel that they can have an impact; supporters, who are not sure they can have an individual impact, but are supportive of taking action; disempowered, who think that it is already too late to do anything about climate change; and skeptics, who question the link between human activity and climate change. Importantly, IKEA reported the demographics of each of these segments, including generations:

If you want to link aging and climate change for your business, how do you make it happen? Start by making the value connection clear for yourself and your customers.

For example, Road Scholar focuses on “lifelong learners.” With almost 150 trips for grandparents and their grandchildren, it’s hard to miss their target audience. Interestingly, though, climate change gets little mention on their website. In contrast, consider Foot Trails, a smaller company focused on walking tours through the English countryside. Their target audience includes retirees, and they highlight their commitment to and awards for sustainability on their home page. Foot Trail crafted a sustainability philosophy that guides their work: “Whilst words such as “green” “environment” “sustainable” have grown in popularity and use, [Foot Trails’ CEO] believes that this attitude of respecting that which gives and provides should also be common in tourism. She has a simple approach—and would say that it’s all about being a mindful business. Not about fancy words.”

Walmart, whose shoppers are more than 40% Boomers or older, also highlights sustainability as one of its global responsibility areas, with three aspirational goals: “to create zero waste, operate with 100% renewable energy and sell products that sustain our resources and the environment.” To their credit, Walmart also produces an annual Global Responsibility Report to monitor their progress.

Companies that serve older adults have an opportunity to link their core mission to an issue that their customers care about. This Earth Day, if someone talks to you about aging and climate change, don’t be afraid. Be hopeful.

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Michael A. Smyer

Michael A. Smyer, Ph.D., an Encore Public Voices Fellow, is a Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University and Founder of Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World.

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