UK consumers support setting ambitious targets and making big changes to their lives to support the transition to net zero, but they need much greater support from the government and businesses across the UK, according to a major new report from Which?.
With the UK set to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 26 in Glasgow in less than a month, it is clear that to meet the country’s net zero requirements, millions of households will have to make fundamental changes – particularly to how they travel, heat their homes, the food they eat and the products they buy.
However, research by the consumer champion involving more than 3,600 people and a series of expert roundtables shows significant support is needed to address the obstacles people face when it comes to making sustainable choices in these vital areas.
Many consumers understand the need to make meaningful lifestyle changes to tackle the climate crisis, but there is a mismatch between what they believe will have the most impact and the changes experts say are most needed, emphasising the need for government support.
Almost half (46%) believe they have not received enough support from the UK government to make these changes, a sentiment echoed by consumers in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland about their respective devolved governments too. Three-quarters (77%) also agree that the government’s net zero target will not be met unless greater support from manufacturers and retailers is forthcoming.
The upcoming net-zero strategy is an opportunity for the government to set out how it will provide this support and incentivise the shift to lower environmental-impact choices, as only a quarter (24%) believe the government has a clear plan in place.
In its report, Which? sets out seven key principles that must be at the heart of the government’s upcoming net-zero strategy to address these obstacles and ensure consumers are empowered to make the changes needed to tackle the climate emergency. These are: joined-up policy; a people-centred approach; an equitable transition; clear information that people can trust; phasing out bad choices; a low-carbon and circular approach; and consumer protections fit for our sustainable future.
When it comes to electric vehicles, there are concerns that need to be addressed to increase consumer uptake. Perceived fears about how far a vehicle can travel on a single charge – so-called range anxiety – were a concern for more than four in 10 people (44%), along with issues about the upfront cost of buying an electric vehicle (34%) and worries about access to the UK’s disjointed public charging network (33%).
However, most believe making the charging process simpler by ensuring charge points are easily accessible and compatible with all brands would encourage them to switch (88%). They also believe making electric vehicles cheaper to buy and run would be an incentive.
With low-carbon heating systems, more than half (56%) consumers were put off by the upfront costs of installing appliances like heat pumps. While running costs (32%) and the feeling that the home’s current heating system works perfectly well (31%) were off-putting for almost a third.
Consumers want financial support to help make their homes more energy efficient with eight in 10 (84%) advocating for grants. A similar proportion support using tax incentives to encourage consumers to use more energy efficient appliances (79%) or refurbish their homes (76%).
Almost eight in 10 (77%) people identified something that would put them off buying a more sustainable product.
More than a third (37%) of consumers saw the cost of energy efficient products such as washing machines and mobile phones compared to cheaper alternatives as a barrier to making the switch, while a quarter (27%) felt they did not know which brands to trust and a similar proportion (26%) were concerned about the cost of repairing products rather than replacing them. Which? introduced a new Eco Buy endorsement last year to help consumers navigate these difficult choices and identify products that are both affordable and better for the environment.
The majority of consumers also believe having clearer information on their products’ likely durability (90%) and clear energy labelling (87%) would be helpful. While eight in 10 believe more information on repairability of products (83%), recyclability (84%) or having a trademark/badge to show a product had been manufactured in a sustainable way (81%) would be beneficial.
Three-quarters (75%) of people pointed to something that put them off doing more when it comes to buying sustainable food. Cost was again the main concern for more than a third of people (37%), while a lack of clear and reliable information about which foods are better for the environment was a problem for a quarter of respondents (25%).
Consumers want the government, retailers and food businesses to make it harder for them to choose options that are bad for the environment by introducing clear labelling on food packaging (53%) and putting tighter controls on the claims that can be made on foods (45%).
The government must also work together with businesses and regulators to address the barriers consumers face to ensure they have the right support to transition to net zero.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Consumers will determine the UK’s ability to reach its net zero target, and while many want to make sustainable choices, they currently face costly, confusing and complex decisions that highlight the need for significant support from the government and businesses.
“It is vital that consumers are at the heart of the government’s net zero strategy and that it includes plans to support millions of households as they prepare to make the major lifestyle changes needed to tackle the climate emergency.”
Notes to editor:
The full report is available here: https://www.which.co.uk/
Which? surveyed 3,619 UK adults between 30th April and 2nd May 2021. Fieldwork was carried out online by Yonder and data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population (aged 18+).
Seven principles to support consumers in the transition to net zero
Joined-up policy – Joined-up government and joined-up policy is essential to deliver the enormous transition to a net zero future at the pace now needed and within the practical constraints of cost and upheaval to people’s lives. Whether dealing with fundamental policies, such as the future UK approach to trade – or more specific regulatory issues such as the safety, security and sustainability of consumer products – there needs to be a coordinated approach across government departments and regulators. They must be focused on common priorities and recognise the importance of consumers and their interests.
A people-centred approach – The transition from a coal-fired to wind-powered electricity system has happened with the involvement of a limited number of key players and without directly affecting most companies in the economy, let alone ordinary people. But the next great leaps we need to make are dependent on the buy-in and support of the vast majority of people in the UK. Policy needs to support and motivate them in the way that they need, whether at national or local level, recognising the domino effect that the right policy choices can have on corporate decisions and the choices made by people in their daily lives.
An equitable transition – In driving the UK economy and its society fast towards a low carbon future, there needs to be a clear recognition that many people don’t have the economic resources to participate in the transition, regardless of how much of a climate change crisis we face. The poorest sections of society cannot be penalised by the net zero transition, whatever the broader, long-term societal good – and shouldn’t miss out on the opportunities and benefits either (such as more efficient cars, better insulated homes). They need to be supported financially and in terms of practical access to low carbon living solutions.
Clear information that people can trust – People need clear and trusted information to support them in making more sustainable choices. They are picking up the signals that the climate crisis is fueling more extensive and dangerous weather events but they struggle to link this consistently with their day-to-day purchasing decisions and have a clear sense of what they can do to make the most difference. Where efforts have been made to provide carbon and other sustainability information campaigns or product information – from cars to washing machines, homes and food – the approach can all too often be disconnected. There needs to be a coordinated net zero engagement campaign that acts as an anchor point for consistent consumer engagement, information and labelling around homes, cars, food and products, alongside practical measures that will support people in their everyday choices.
Phase out bad choices – The need for a joined-up approach to engaging people in decision making on their purchasing decisions can only be done in tandem with a policy and fiscal system that actively ‘sunsets’ bad, high carbon choices. This is being done with sales of new petrol and diesel cars (2030), hybrids (2035) and potentially non-zero emission HGVs (2035 or earlier) for example. The poorest performers in any market need to be phased out, applying the principles of an equitable net zero transition. Companies can no longer expect to put high carbon products on the market and expect society to pay for the external costs of the carbon associated with their production, use and disposal.
Low carbon and circular – There is rightly an enormous focus on shifting rapidly to a low carbon future but circularity also has to be a priority. Less resource use and less waste are desirable end goals in their own regard but will also help deliver a low carbon future. Putting circularity at the heart of thinking about low carbon consumption will only help with progress. This includes establishing a functioning second-hand EV car market; encouraging the repair of consumer products; preventing food waste; and ensuring that as gas fired central heating systems are removed resources in them are recovered for recycling.
Consumer protections fit for our sustainable future – Low carbon choices will require consumers to make complex and often costly decisions and often in evolving, new markets, leaving them vulnerable without adequate consumer protections. People therefore need to be supported by a framework of effective consumer rights and protections. They need to easily access the products and services that are right for them, with reassurance that they will perform effectively and be safe – and that they can trust the professionals and tradespeople who advise them and where needed refit, repair or install. If things should go wrong, they must have a simple, but reliable route to effective redress.
For decades, Which? has played a role in sustainability. We’re committed to championing sustainability for consumers and to being a credible source of expertise and advice on sustainable consumerism. Which? research and advice on sustainability is available here: https://www.which.co.uk/news/
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