Interview: Alistair Ulph of the Sustainable Consumption Institute

In February [yes, three months ago) MCFly interviewed Alistair Ulph, Acting Director of the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute.  Apologies to him for the delay in publication.

If you could first explain a little bit about how the Sustainable Consumption Institute came into existence and what its remit is.
The SCI was set up with a substantial donation from Tesco. Sir Terry Leahy, who ran Tesco then really had a very long-term vision for companies like Tesco in business in fifty to a hundred years time, they had to seriously address environmental issues and we had to seriously address how you could change consumer behaviour. It wasn’t enough just to work with the supply chain and the producers, you weren’t going to get serious change, of the type you needed for society, unless we could persuade consumers to change their consumption patterns. He thought it was very important that serious research on this was done. So he was keen to set up – somewhere in the UK – a centre that specialised on the consumption dimension of the sustainability challenges. They went through a process of looking at where they might locate this. It came down to us and another institution, and they decided to award this to Manchester.

So the remit is very much for us to do cutting edge research on climate – initially it was very much focused on climate, but the environment and how we could change consumer behaviour to allow it to become a more sustainable pattern of consumption. As I say, this was funded initially by Tesco. Our aim since then has been to try to diversify the sources of funding, so although Tesco were our major sponsor, they’ve always made it clear that they want us to get significant other sources of funding for the SCI. So we have recently, for example, been awarded a research grant by the ESRC. They’ve got this new scheme where they want what is called ‘co-investment’. They’ll put in 50% of the funding if you can get industry to put in 50%. We were one of the successful bidders for that- we got three hundred thousand for that grant – and that again is looking at issues of how you get sustainable changes in consumer behaviour and how that then works its way through the supply chain.

A very important part of what we’ve been working on in the last year in SCI, is although we got a substantial donation from Tesco, it’s very important that we move to becoming financially sustainable, independent of the Tesco money and get other sources of funding for the SCI. So we’re looking at other sources of funding. We’re talking to a significant range of other companies, but also government departments and ngos and so on about how our work can work with them to try and bring about changes in behaviour. What works in trying to bring about change in consumer behaviour and what doesn’t work.

And when you go to these potential funders, what’s the two or three big successes you can point to, the two or three useful pieces of work that have been completed so far?
Well, the major pieces of work are not quite finished yet, but they’re close. What we did is set up what we call three flagship projects.
One was looking around changing consumer behaviour. The major issue there was that as part of that work we wanted to get access to the substantial dataset that derives from Tesco Clubcard data. It’s taken us a lot longer than we had originally expected to just negotiate the terms of access to that data. We’ve now begun to do the analysis of that data. But that work is already beginning to throw up some interesting pieces of work. This is joint work between sociologists, psychologists, economists, looking at how we can start to shift changes in consumer behaviour. So one piece of work which comes out of the psychology work, for example, is that although you get a headline figures that say 70 or 80 per cent of people are very interested in the environment and want to care about that, there’s a big gap between what people say they are going to do and what people actually do. There are techniques in psychology for measuring what we call implicit attitudes – what are the real beliefs people have, as opposed to what they say they doing. So we’ve done work using these techniques. There are powerful techniques such as looking at people’s hand gestures when they are talking. Hand gestures are more primitive than talk, so there are ways you can interpret people’s body language to see whether what they’re saying is the truth or not. There are other techniques where you can fire information at people very fast and see how they respond to that information. From that you can get a view as to what people’s real underlying attitudes are. And what this suggests is that this goes both ways. So there are people, when you ask them for their opinion say “well, I really care about the environment” but actually their underlying preferences don’t support that. But also the other way round, people who don’t evince very vocal explicit preferences for the environment, but actually when you look at their attitudes are more caring. So the real question is what does this imply for how you get the messages across to consumers. Tesco will point to things like “85% of our customers say they care about the environment” but this [research] says no, that’s not really sufficient to tell you what consumers are really going to do….

And that leads to other strands of work – there’s work on carbon labelling. There’s issues there about how do you really come up with the numbers – how creditable are those kind of numbers.

There’s also work on life cycle analysis. One of our fellows, Harish Jeswani pioneered the tools for life-cycle analysis. Initially for carbon, but now it’s done for other environmental issues.

The other question is ‘what attention do people actually pay to the data?” So this comes back to the work on the psychology side. So, we’ve got ways of looking at eye-tracking behaviour. – how much attention do people give to different parts of a label. So when you’re in a shop, looking at different products, how much attention do they give to… price information versus environmental information versus other kinds of information. And what’s interesting is that again, it varies across products. So things like energy-saving light bulbs, people DO look at the information on that, but similar information on say washing powders or other products is less looked at by the consumer.

So why are consumers paying attention to that environmental information for some products but not for other kinds of products.  As I said, we’ve got access to this work, this dataset from Tesco on their consumers. We’ve only just begun to… construct the data on that . We’re trying to construct an index of what we call “environmentally sensitive” consumption. So by looking at the consumption patterns for different individuals you can see how these people are more likely to buy sustainable products or not. And you can track that over time. And what’s quite interesting from that is that there are clear time periods when it suggests that people do care a bit more about the environmental aspects of their shopping, and other times when they care less. That may suggest that there are particularly good times to try and emphasise the environmental message in products.

Do you mean times of the year or times during the shopping journey?
Times of the year. In the lead up to Christmas, they’re not that concerned about environmental [factors], but in January they care more about it. So there are times of the year when this seems to work. You can also track this data with things like coverage in the press of environmental issues. It appears there’s no real correlation there. It appears that stories in the press won’t have that much impact on people’s behaviour. Then what we’re also looking at is, is there what is sometimes called a rebound effect in people’s behaviour. There are some theories for example in psychology that say people have what [is called] “moral compensation”. So that if people are in one area of their consumption focusing very much on environmental things, they think gives them a license to be less environmentally-friendly elsewhere. We’ve done some initial work on this – but it is very initial work – does suggest that there is some support for this ‘moral licensing’ argument. I think we need to do some more careful analysis of the data to be really sure that that result is robust enough. But that would suggest that then there are issues about changing behaviour being really tricky, because you might be able to change in some domains, but if it doesn’t change across the board, then you’ve got major issues. It’s at least suggestive that this is non-trivial to do this kind of work.
Another area we’ve been looking at is food waste. One of our researchers has done a lot of work – basically monitoring a number of households in Manchester as they’ve gone around shopping. What’s coming out of that is that people are aware of environmental issues. It’s not that they’re lazy, or they just don’t care about the environment, but they sometimes don’t know how best to deal with environmental issues. And there are also conflicting messages coming to households. So there is this issue where the medical people would be saying “you ought to buy fresh food, it’s better for your kids, it’s better for their health.” And there were actually people in the study putting frozen food into their trolleys they felt guilty about that. But actually, given the lifestyles people lead – the habit of eating regularly at the same time, where the whole family sits down and has a meal is no longer the lifestyle many people actually lead. So although you may buy fresh food, you can’t guarantee that the lifestyle is regular enough to allow you to use that by the time you think it needs to be used. So it may be for some households it makes more sense to actually not buy fresh food and then end up throwing it out – the figures for waste are very high, near 50%. If you could get people to think “well, actually, I’m not going to kill my kids by having a bit of frozen food” – not switching entirely, but what’s a better mix

But that gets back to this question of information – how do you get information across to households. Because you can’t bombard households with masses of information about [health and environment] consequences… How do you get clear messages across to consumers but ones that are a bit more sophisticated than “this is bad for the environment” or “this is bad for your health” . How do you get these more subtle trade-offs across to people?

It may be that things like more on-line shopping [might help] This is something I’ve suggested to Tesco ; Can we get an analysis of on-line shopping versus in store shopping and see whether it’s easier to get some of these messages across when you’re doing on-line shopping . You know, the pressure of going about a supermarket with kids in tow and so on can be a lot more fraught…. On-line, they may be more receptive….

So those are some of the issues we’re looking at, and some of the results that are coming out of our analysis of consumer behaviour. That’s our first major theme. Our second major theme is around how you use supply chains for innovation. How do you get what are sometimes called “focal organisations” which take a lead in organising new innovation in that particular area and how does that get fed through supply chains. We’ve got some work on that, looking at a range of different products, looking at how innovation disseminates through supply chains.

Another area of work is around trying to actually model climate change and looking particularly at the kind of time scales for taking action on climate change. If you want to hit targets like two degrees C warming, at what stage, how quickly do you have to adjust behaviour now to make sure we don’t miss that particular deadline, and what is the scope for changing patterns of consumption to allow us to hit that.

There have been a couple of subsectors of that work, one of them looking at aviation, and one’s looking at shipping. Partly that’s because these have been the areas that have been tricky to take into account when doing life-cycle analysis. They’ve either admitted that or done rather simple measures of carbon in the transportation of commodities. [We’ve tried to] look more closely at what is the scope for trying to reduce the carbon linked to transportation. And what that suggests is that there probably is quite a lot of scope to try to reduce shipping, much less so for aviation.

We are trying to feed this into policy makers, both in businesses and government. We have good contacts with DEFRA and other bodies, to try to make sure that what we are saying gets through…

You mentioned that it had taken longer to get the loyalty card data than you’d hoped. Any other things that haven’t gone according to plan, or any things that you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?! I’m aware that you’ve not been at the SCI for all of its life.
There have been some issues around some appointments at SCI that we’ve had to sort out. I think we’ve lost some momentum as a result of that . We’re not where I’d hoped we’d have at the time we launched the SCI. I think we’re in a “catch up” phase right now – we could have been here at least a year or so earlier. There have been issues with running the SCI which have held us back somewhat. With hindsight, we’d have done things a bit differently. I was just talking to Mohan, who was one of the original people at the SCI. At the time of the SCI was set up there were relatively few institutions looking at consumption. There were plenty of others which were looking at other aspects of sustainability, but none which had quite the same focus dimension of that. You can do quite a lot down supply chains. If you talk to businesses they all say it’s got to be straightforward for one business to talk to another business and persuade them to change patterns of production so as to make it more sustainable. But ultimately it’s this question of how you’re going to get consumers to change their patterns of consumption. So you talk to Proctor and Gamble – they do their life-cycle analysis. The really big spike in what they do is households’ washing machines. That’s where the big energy use comes in. So how do you persuade households to wash at lower water temperatures. We’ve got the technology to do that. When I was in Australia it was all cold wash. Here, getting people to wash at 40 degrees, 30 degrees, 15 degrees can be a struggle. So what is it about people’s attitudes to this that’s making it slow for companies to get these lower temperature washing powders through to consumers… [Maybe] it’s a hang-over from older generations that said “you have to boil at a hundred degrees to be clean and sterile” or is there more to it than that? We are talking to Proctor and Gamble about doing some work with them on this – on how you get consumers to change their attitudes.

That leads into the next question – the future of the SCI. You’ve mentioned a lot of work that’s nearing completion. Are there some big ticket items, some big projects coming up, or is it a continuation of all the projects you’ve already done?
Well, the main thing we’re doing just now is growing the SCI. So far we’ve had relatively few core staff. We’ve brought in people, sometimes from other parts of the university, otherwise hired research staff to work on some of these projects. But that doesn’t build us the big cohort of core staff in the SCI. So what we’ve been focusing on in the last six months or so. We’ve started off by trying to make appointments at the chair level, and now looking at senior research fellow, research fellow level, and post-docs, so we can build the capacity of SCI. We’ve also broadened the range of work we’re doing. As I said, the first three flagships around three themes – consumer behaviour, innovation in supply chains and climate change mitigation and adaptation behaviour. We’re adding to that now by looking at energy resources – particularly renewable energy resources, water resources and sustainable cities

In part that’s also to broaden this out so we build links with other parts of the university. We’ve been a bit social science focused Which is fine, because we are talking about consumer behaviour, so you’d expect that. But it’s important that we work with people in engineering sciences and so on. We’re trying to expand the range of areas that SCI works on to incorporate that. We’ve also got to become more international in our work. We’ve been a bit UK-centric, not entirely so, but it has been a bit led by UK work. So, for example, Tesco also have data from their international companies, and we have looked at a bit of that. There may be some issues about getting comparability of data. And of course there are other countries outside those that Tesco are linked to. So we need become more international in our focus at SCI.
So it’s not just a question of carrying on as we were before. We want to expand the range of topics and the geographical range of work we do. And build partnerships with other key companies and government departments and research institutes in the world.

Are there any formal links with local government – I’m thinking of Manchester City Council and AGMA, or does the policy work flow more towards Westminster?
It’s not been exclusively Westminster-focused, but it has been more to the national than the local Manchester level. The work we did with food waste was all based on work we did with Manchester people. And through the work we are trying to build up on sustainable cities we are talking to people in Environmental Development (Ecocities). We are hoping to work collaboratively with them, and that will be focused on Manchester. And people like [Dr Alice Bows] talk to people in Manchester….

We don’t want to be seen as being a Manchester-centric centre, because the problems we are facing are global problems. We don’t even want to see ourselves as UK-centric. Another dimension of this is that we have built, just before Christmas into the Sustainability Consortium, which is run out of the University of Arizona. They’re similar to SCI in the sense hat they were initially funded by Walmart. They’ve built up quite a big link with a lot of other American companies and universities to do work on sustainability. Again, very much focused on life-cycle analysis, supply chains and so on. But they now want European connections. So we’ve become a partner with them, as well as Tesco. And they’ve got a centre in Wageningen University in the Netherlands and that will give us access to a range of American companies and American universities to work with on similar kinds of issues. So it’s important to say we’re not trying to ignore Manchester, but we need to be seen as interested in these issues from a much bigger perspective.

Only two more questions – In the news Tesco announced that they were withdrawing their carbon labelling system, partly because no other retailers had come forward and joined them on it. Was that an issue consulted the SCI on?

It’s not actually true. Tesco put out subsequent to that [article in the Financial Times] a statement that they ARE continuing their carbon labelling work. What they’re doing is, rather than trying to do quite as much of it in-house, they’re working much more with people like the Carbon Trust. They remain committed to doing carbon labelling for all their products.

Well, I won’t believe what I read in the Financial Times anymore! And final question – anything else you’d like to say. Anything you were hoping or dreading I’d ask.
I’m very keen that we make it more widely known to people in Manchester the kind of work we’re doing in SCI. As I said, we are not specifically Manchester-focused. But I think it’s very important for Manchester that we do have a centre based here like us taking these kinds of issues seriously. Our aspiration is to become one of the world-leaders in this area. I hope that people in Manchester will find that valuable. The more we can try to feed the results of our research back through people in Manchester and help policy makers in Manchester, we’re very keen to do that.

Interview conducted and transcribed, and relevant hyperlinks chosen by Marc Hudson


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