Meat, wellbeing and the protein problem

To recap my personal leadership challenge is to work with the charity Hubbub to help promote sustainable lifestyles in fun and playful ways. We concentrate on things people are passionate about such as fashion, food, homes and neighbourhoods.

Most recently we’ve been developing a campaign to reduce meat consumption and promote plant based sources of protein.  Meat and dairy consumption is predicted to double by 2050 and this isn’t sustainable.  Our Meat Your Match campaign challenged male gym users to replace half of their animal based protein with plant based protein over a period of 2 months. It was provocatively aimed at this audience as research shows that 60 % of men exceed recommended levels of red meat intake and gym users in particular have become increasingly conscious of the ‘need’ to eat lots of meat protein. The campaign aimed to challenge their preconceptions that to get lots of protein you had to consume lots of meat and dairy. Participants received bespoke meal plans, wearable technologies, and personal support. Preliminary results found that the diets were hugely beneficial to the participants’ health and wellbeing, with people sleeping better and feeling less fatigued. They also said they were far more likely to order a vegetable based dish when eating out.

We now aim to expand this campaign to a larger, more mainstream cohort.  I’ve pitched the idea to my employer to see if they can get involved.  I didn’t get off to the best start as it turns out the lady I spoke to is the daughter of a livestock farmer who loves meat.  However, after further discussions she became interested in the wellbeing elements of the concept and so we are altering our approach to position it more as a wellbeing campaign.  This is a valuable lesson as wellbeing is becoming increasingly important across many businesses and so it’s an angle that may well resonate better with a business audience. We’ll be pitching it formally in the next few weeks and I’ll report back on progress in my next blog. Wish me luck.

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Insuring a Sustainable Future

If we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change we must align finance with the needs of a sustainable economy.  For, whilst much focus is on government spending and multilateral aid budgets, these are dwarfed by the approximately $300tn that is traded on the capital markets.  If we can harness this $300tn to support, rather than undermine, sustainable development the effect will be transformative.

As arguably the world’s largest industry, the insurance sector has a central role to play.  Insurers are uniquely exposed to climate risk. TAs extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, it is the insurance industry that foots the bill.  The ABI estimate that the global insurance industry’s exposure to weather-related loss has increased to $200bn, a four fold increase in 30 years.  Similarly, insurers’ investments in the capital markets are exposed to climate risk, such as through stranded assets.  Indeed a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that there is $43tn of value at risk from climate change.  This gives insurers a strong commercial incentive to mitigate climate change.

Insurers are also uniquely placed to promote climate mitigation.  For example, insurers can invest their huge sums of capital into renewable energy projects.  They can also choose to divest from fossil fuel companies, thus depriving them of an important source of capital.  Similarly insurers can refuse to insure fossil fuel extraction such as coal mines. Without insurance such projects become unviable. Insurers can also promote mitigation and adaption through its products such as by incentivising customers to make their homes energy efficient, to drive their cars less, and to not build on flood plains.  This creates a virtuous circle in which the insurers risk is reduced, customers benefit from lower premiums and climate change is mitigated.  In addition insurers can use their considerable size and influence to engage governments in support of pro-climate policies.

This pivotal role of insurers has led some environmentalists to assign great hope on the industry driving climate action and providing a much needed counter weight to the might of the fossil fuel industry.  Groups such as ClimateWise and the Principles for Sustainable Insurance are testament to the industry’s growing engagement with the issue.  But whilst many insurers are leading the way the industry’s response isn’t uniform and, according to some environmentalists, isn’t commensurate to the scale of the challenge.  Certainly, if we are to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement, greater ambition is needed, not just from insurers but from all sectors.  As the world’s risk managers the insurance industry must do more to utilise its position of influence to mitigate the greatest risk of them all- that of climate change.

Nudging our way to sustainability

It is often thought that economics and sustainability are uneasy bedfellows. Indeed many an environmentalist blames economics for the rapacious consumption of natural resources, increased inequality and a climate crisis the like of which the world has never known.

However this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Richard Thaler, perhaps offers salvation. Thaler is chief architect of behavioural economics, a discipline that seeks to move beyond the rational economic man of classical economic theory and instead considers how people really make decisions. For behavioural economists such as Thaler, decision making is not the result of rational choice but rather is heavily influenced by irrational biases. Loss aversion, status quo bias, choice architecture and framing all have major impacts upon decision making.

Applying this insight Thaler (2008) developed a series of ‘nudges’ to help influence people’s choices in ways that will benefit themselves and society. The most cited (though possibly most unpleasant!) example is that of the men’s urinals in Amsterdam airport where, in an effort to reduce spillage, planners painted a fly in each urinal for men to aim at. The result? An 80% reduction in spillage.

But what does this mean for sustainable consumption? For me, it offers the opportunity to move beyond climate communication and towards affecting behaviour change. It has long been a frustration of mine that no matter how stark the warnings, how urgent the crisis or how concerned people claim to be, changing their behaviour towards more sustainable consumption has remained stubbornly hard to achieve. The application of behavioural economics offers hope that people can be influenced to make more sustainable choices.

It should be noted that the approach is not without its critics. Leaving aside libertarian concerns about overbearing state influence, even some environmentalists have concerns. For Adam Corner (2017), a key drawback of nudge theory is that it prevents people from meaningfully engaging with the issue. People are nudged into making more sustainable choices without even realising it or due to other motivating factors such as saving money (eg emphasising the money saving benefits of turning off lights). This transactional nature negates long term sustainable behaviour change. For Corner, what we really need is cognitive engagement to achieve a long term shift.

However, it seems to me that nudging still has a valuable contribution to make, not least because such is the urgency of the climate crisis any method to encourage the adoption of sustainable lifestyles should be encouraged. Furthermore, the potential impact could be huge. Take energy for example. Research shows that in Western countries 50-90% of people favour renewable energy. Yet these preferences rarely translate into action. In the UK less than 1% of people choose renewable energy tariffs (Heeter and Nicholas, 2013). When choosing an energy contract the choice architecture results in the vast majority of households simply signing up to the default (non renewable) option. Insights from behavioural economics suggest that if energy providers changed their default option to the renewable energy tariff, there would be a big increase in people signing up to renewable energy (Sunstein 2016). Indeed research in Germany showed that when the default was changed households using renewable energy exceeded 90% (Pichert and Katsikopoulos, 2008). Nudge thus harnesses the inertia that typifies the energy market and turns it into a positive, resulting in a large uptake in renewable energy.

What begins as a small nudge is thus transformed into a mighty shove towards greater sustainability.