The case for positive reinforcement when it comes to encouraging climate responsibility

Nov 21, 2022 |3 min read

It’s COP time again and the headlines have been undeniably terrifying…

“We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing. Our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”

Says UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. I believe him. I’m convinced by the science. I’ve turned off the heating and I’m tapping away cocooned in a blanket. I gave up meat years ago. I use laundry liquid capsules from some brand I found on Instagram that uses less plastic. Do I think my actions make a real difference to the future of our planet? Not really – I guess I hope that there are loads of people out there like me whose small changes overall add up.

And we all do know that things must change. As these climate campaigners in Cape Town put it; Business as Usual = Death.


Climate inconsistency on the menu at Cop27

At the moment though, death isn’t a good option for me, so I’m choosing oat milk. But it doesn’t look like the attendees at COP are - the Daily Mail points out that the VIP menu includes expensive beef and fish dishes, rather than being plant-based. Nilgün Engin, Plant Based Treaty campaigner said, “The scarcity of plant-based food options at Cop27 is astonishing given we are at a climate summit. A third of greenhouse gas emissions come from food and Cop27 should be showcasing climate-friendly plant-based food solutions rather than being part of the problem.”

It’s a good example of the type of inconsistency that can both hinder progress and act as cannon-fodder for the anti-woke narrative which sells papers and attracts clicks. Does cutting out meat really make a difference if even COP hasn’t prioritised a plant-based menu? What’s interesting to me is the level of chastising from all parties; it’s a clear example of punishment and judgement for making ’bad’ choices for the planet. I don’t think any of us are strangers to feeling guilty and guilted about our daily actions here. In some cases, guilt can be useful and lead us to change our behaviour. Surely there must be a better way, that leaves out the emotional turmoil?


Using positive reinforcement to encourage climate responsibility

Positive reinforcement has been used as a training method for years. I’m well-versed in the technique myself, with two young children who are prone to drawing on walls, not eating their food, etc… I know it’s more effective to reward them when they make a choice I’m happy with, than to punish them when they make one I’m not happy with – AND it means I avoid feeling like a mean old witch. The difference vs. climate change is this is all very low stakes – no-one really cares if I can get my son to eat spinach by letting him watch a video of Popeye (true story). But perhaps we need to lower the stakes from ’Business as Usual = Death’ to encourage people to make planet-friendly choices in their everyday lives. It’s not about making choices that can beat the Earth’s apocalypse; it’s about encouraging choices that are better than the ones we made last week.

Many brands and companies are already tapping into the power of positive encouragement; I’ve noticed supermarkets like M&S and Tesco ’nudging’ us towards healthier food choices by replacing sugary treats with nuts and seeds at checkouts.

L’Oreal Paris Elvive uses 100% post-consumer recycled packaging, so you can continue using the same products you usually would without the same level of climate guilt.

I wonder if so many brands with sustainability at their core use upbeat, friendly language because they are trying to build rapport with their customers and help them celebrate having made a good choice? Who Gives a Crap recycled toilet paper stands out for its cheeky personality (sorry!) and colourful, feel-good design.

Other pioneers in this field include: upbeat, packed with colour but ever-so informative, Tony’s Chocolonely, who raise awareness of modern slavery on cocoa farms.

There's also Just Egg in the US who have removed any preciousness or misconception (depending on where you stand) about vegan food. Their plant-based egg is made from mung bean, and it looks and tastes just like chicken eggs. Their website explains clearly how by avoiding factory farming in their production, they save water, land and emissions. They bring customers on the journey with them in an irreverent way; “The factory farming industry is very worried about how much you’ll like our eggs. And with more than 300 million eggs already sold, it should be.”

It's time for the media narrative to align with brands so we can all benefit from the power of positive levers to act against climate change. We are all in this together and we need to act as if we are on the same side, rather than continually naming and blaming.