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Our Innate Psychology Is Fueling the Climate Crisis — Here’s How to Combat It

Psychology climate action
Psychology climate action

We can’t keep communicating about climate change in ways that feed our evolutionary prejudices and continue kicking the can down the road. We must outsmart our biases using strategic communication tactics so we can take action when it matters — which is now. Here are 3 ways to hack our brains for climate action.

Originally appeared in Sustainable Brands

Our brains are wired to pay attention to whatever is happening right here, right now. And for many, the relative invisibility of climate change in our lives relegates the crisis to a problem for distant generations. Most of us simply don’t have the time, diligence or scientific knowledge necessary to decode the complex, interconnected details that make up the climate crisis.

But we can’t continue communicating about climate change in ways that feed our evolutionary prejudices and continue kicking the can down the road. We need to outsmart our biases using strategic communication tactics so we can take action when it matters — which is now.

What is bias?

Biases aren’t always a bad thing. They’re tools that have kept our species alive for 200,000 years. Our ancestors used “distance bias” to judge the relevance of threats by gauging physical proximity. If a prehistoric hunter saw a saber-tooth tiger several miles away, he might feel a tad uneasy; but he wouldn’t scrap the hunt. However, if he woke in the night to a tiger entering his home, his brain would recognize the physical proximity of the threat and he’d respond immediately.

Distance bias also applies to time. Think about the differences in your feelings if you were told to make a speech in front of a massive audience today versus in two years. Savvy business leaders already know how to account for delays over time using evaluations such as net present value and discounted cash flow to assess future risks and opportunities. Yet for years, we’ve communicated that the climate crisis is like a saber-tooth tiger miles away. It’s a problem that will affect us in 50 years, 20 years, maybe 12 years — not today. So, when the spreadsheets calculate those risks, we may feel a twinge of unease at the tiger down the road; but we’re not willing to scrap the hunt. Instead, we continue business as usual.

While we can’t (and don’t want to) bring the most disastrous effects of climate change to our front door tomorrow, we can communicate more effectively to colleagues and stakeholders to mitigate distance bias; tamp down complexity; and bring the metaphorical tiger to the center of our attention, where it belongs.

3 ways to hack your brain for climate action

We can work around distance bias to address environmental factors in the boardroom; but it requires using a special mix of languages — including speaking to business leaders in business terms, honing in on the financial cost of unmitigated risks and driving the impact home with meaningful examples.

1. Tug on the heartstrings

Psychologist Fréderic Laloux proposed a simple exercise to make the future feel closer: Consider what age you and a child you love will be in 2050. By 2050, you may be approaching the later years of your life, but that child will be starting a career or family. Now, imagine the catastrophic effects of unaddressed climate change — including skyrocketing food prices and extreme weather events — destroying their life milestones.

This perspective-taking allows us to connect emotionally to the future and simultaneously invokes instincts for protection and stewardship. It gives us a direct channel to care more and to feel like we have a responsibility to act on behalf of someone, or something, we love.

2. Demonstrate why 1.5° matters

To most, 1.5 or 2 extra degrees of heat feels inconsequential. But imagine you have some ice cream at 1° below freezing. What happens when the temperature ticks up 1 degree? It begins to melt, eventually becoming a sticky puddle. Problem-solvers might say to just put it back in the freezer and it’ll be good as new. But it isn’t. Not only does bacteria grow while it’s melted — making it unsafe to eat — but the ice cream’s structure has permanently changed.

Similarly, our ecosystem is full of one-way boundaries sensitive to small temperature changes. Warmer springs trigger birds to migrate from Europe to the Arctic before the plants they eat have sprouted, leaving them to starve. When someone laughs off 1.5° of global warming with a recommendation to “just wear shorts,” use an example like this to change their frame of reference.

3. Practice losing your favorite things

At a recent team retreat, the climate crisis was presented in a memorable way. A colleague came onstage wearing a cotton jacket and holding a water bottle and a chocolate bar and asked us to imagine it was 2050. First, she removed her jacket. Cotton is highly susceptible to rising temperatures, drought and unpredictable rain, so it will grow increasingly unproductive and harder to access. Then, she tossed her bottle. According to the World Meteorological Organization, more than 5 billion people will have inadequate access to water by 2050. Lastly, she dropped her chocolate bar. Rising temperatures threaten cacao trees; they’re predicted to go extinct by 2050, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Witnessing everyday items disappear is surprisingly powerful. Practice this with your own business model. What elements are in danger? How will losing them impact other aspects of the business?

Now what?

I once thought it was crucial to get everyone to understand the crisis we’re facing. Today, with climate change now an “identity politics” issue, that’s an unrealistic goal. A lot of people aren’t ready to face our future, but we can’t wait for them. We need to focus on those who can move quickly and with impact: the business sector.

Many business leaders are poised to act but are held back by a lack of stakeholder support. We need to equip these leaders with tools like these that quickly mitigate distance bias and decrease complexity without triggering immediate rejection. We do this by framing the crisis in their terms — convincing them and their teams to act today. These techniques work because they ground distant and challenging concepts in simple terms, present tense and business realities.

Ultimately, we can’t change the ways our brains are wired to protect us. But we can change the way we communicate to effect change.

The saber-tooth tiger isn’t 30 years away — it’s lurking outside our door. While we argue over its existence, it’s growing stronger and will be much harder to stop with every passing year.

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Why your business should prioritize ESG, even in the midst of a financial downturn

Why your business should prioritize ESG, even in the midst of a financial downturn
Why your business should prioritize ESG, even in the midst of a financial downturn

Already, the world’s biggest companies report nearly $1 trillion at risk from climate impacts expected to hit in the next few years, due largely to extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and costs associated with increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

This article originally appeared on Fastcompany.com

In a flashback to the 2008 financial crash, concern is mounting that as a global recession approaches, business leaders may slash their ESG budgets.

We’ve seen this scenario play out before. After barely a month into the war on Ukraine, we’d already witnessed grocery chains roll back pledges to eliminate palm oil and investment firms reverse sustainability policies. With history as our witness, it’s clear that sustainability is often the first item put on ice when companies grapple with decisions that might affect short-term financial returns.

Repeating this pattern risks propelling society backward at a time when we desperately need accelerated action. The business community must use the economic downturn as a vehicle to move society toward a new, resilient model in which living in balance with nature drives decision-making.

Playing the long game is what will truly safeguard business—protecting against future environmental crises with similar consequences to the global recession. Already, the world’s biggest companies report nearly $1 trillion at risk from climate impacts expected to hit in the next few years, due largely to extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and costs associated with increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And businesses are already paying today. In 2021, global economic losses from extreme flooding alone amounted to $82 billion.

Preparing for the not-so-distant future

While companies might survive the next quarter with ESG on the back burner, doing so will sabotage their futures, which aren’t so far away. Sustainability -disclosure mandates are ramping up in both the E.U. and the U.S. Combined with mounting consumer and investor pressures, more regulations are bound to force changes upon businesses.

The impending economic recession, like the crises before us, represents an opportunity for business leaders to double down on their sustainability commitments and come out stronger than their peers and better equipped to survive future disruptions.

To build resilience, businesses must mitigate the risks to physical and human capital across their global operations. This starts with identifying the level and nature of the climate risks facing the company and determining the best way to tackle them. For companies with significant physical risk associated with agricultural commodities, this may mean engaging with suppliers, cooperatives, and governments to stabilize yields and prices despite turbulent weather conditions. For those with risk tied to rapidly developing carbon-pricing mechanisms, this could mean setting aggressive climate strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their operations. And for companies that have risk associated with downstream markets that drive sales, this may mean developing business-transformation plans that capture emerging low-carbon markets.

Economic recessions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the global supply chain crisis are all dress rehearsals for the disruptions ahead. As the window of opportunity to mitigate the environmental crisis closes, companies must re-evaluate the rules of business and lead their industries in radical yet necessary transformations to align with the limits of the planet.

Business leaders can accelerate progress toward this goal by driving change in untapped areas. One example is aligning internal sustainability goals with external support of public policy. There’s often a disconnect between the agenda of corporate sustainability teams and that of their colleagues in public affairs departments responsible for shaping a desired business environment. Business leaders must rectify this by establishing governance and oversight processes to ensure their external lobbying efforts and the trade groups they associate with support their sustainability commitments. And they’d be wise to do so swiftly—investors are already scrutinizing corporate lobbying activities and their alignment with the Paris Agreement.

Another way business leaders can drive change is by rethinking the very idea of demand, in everything from consumers’ technology choices and food to energy consumption and fashion. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and it will involve significant behavioral changes. But if businesses across all sectors took it on, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says global GHG emissions could be cut by 40% to 70% by 2050.

All these actions require a profound shift in mindset, recognizing that sustainable transformation is a long-term investment and businesses are engineered for shorter-term thinking. But bold action today will yield a future with advantages that far outweigh the benefits of business as usual in the present. Forward-looking companies recognize the need to decouple growth in revenue from environmental impacts to survive in a resource-constrained world.

Ultimately, leaders must assess their corporate footprint, pinpoint the activities that lead to a misalignment between their business model and the Earth’s ecosystem, and change their strategies accordingly.

Integrating sustainability into the crisis compass

When crisis strikes, companies must do more internally to ensure that sustainability never falls off the corporate agenda. Sustainability is business continuity. Without it, businesses risk losing their licenses to operate.

Lessons from the past show that those with a robust sustainability program fare better than their peers. Whether looking at stock price performance in response to COVID-19 or post-2008 financial crisis outcomes, evidence continues to illustrate that companies investing in ESG outperform those that deprioritize it. Why? Because companies pursuing sustainable transformation tend to be more innovative, competitive, and adaptable—all of which are fundamental to resilience. This notion isn’t lost on investors, who increasingly believe that sustainable companies are better positioned to weather-adverse conditions. And they have data to back this up: a Morningstar report revealed that 75% of its ESG-screened indexes outperformed their broad market equivalents in 2020; similar observations were made by other index providers.

When a crisis strikes, the ability to keep sustainability at the heart of the response is what will enable companies to emerge on the other side without long-term damage to the business, its reputation, and its stakeholder value. While a successful crisis response calls for small, agile teams, the legal and financial voices shouldn’t be the only ones guiding decision-making. Only by bringing in leaders with sustainability expertise can companies avoid making one-sided decisions that neglect the environmental agenda and build responses that enable long-term resilience.

By using moments of catastrophe as a catalyst to transform their business models, companies can contribute to securing a future for people and the planet. As the world buckles up for another financial downturn, it’s critical that businesses respond with an eye to what’s around the corner and refuse a return to business as usual as they recover.

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Environmental Impact Assessments Could Undermine Sustainable Fashion – Experts Explain Why.

Environmental Impact Assessments fashion

Forbes | As next-generation materials emerge as a promising piece of the sustainable fashion puzzle, there’s an urgent need to gather reliable, robust insights on their impacts. But assessing and interpreting the environmental footprint of these innovative materials against incumbent ones represents a challenge for innovators, with fast-moving R&D processes, limited available data and the need to think holistically about trade-offs. Quantis’ Global Fashion & Sporting Goods Lead, Philipp Meister, and Global Innovation Lead Marcial Vargas, delved into this complex topic in a recent piece in Forbes. The takeaways? It’s critical to conduct screening assessments on a continuous basis throughout the R&D process to ensure the impacts of each material iteration are accurately captured and subsequently interpreted by experts to drive science-based decision-making.

“‘Materials [are] developing rapidly, so impact assessment needs to be done dynamically and repeatedly–it needs to be a continuous and somewhat integrated assessment to guide the R&D process,’ adds Meister. This means Quantis works with some early-stage innovators on a flexible retainer basis, guiding them with ongoing assessment. Vargas adds that LCAs conducted in this manner have successfully allowed the modeling of lower impact factories in the food and beverage industry. ‘For the fashion industry, this will also be the case’ he believes…What has transpired from these interviews is that the current LCA methodologies can and do work, but only if interpreted and disseminated according to interpretations by LCA specialists.”

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The A to Z of B Corp: sustainability’s ‘gold standard’

B Corp is increasingly viewed as the 'sustainability gold standard' for sustainability certification. What are the befits and drawbacks?

Drapers | B Corp is increasingly viewed as the ‘gold standard’ for sustainability certification. What are the befits and drawbacks? Is it the best indicator of a company’s sustainability performance? How does it compare to other standards? Quantis Global Fashion and Sporting Goods Lead tackled these and other questions in an interview with Drapers. His conclusion? “As with any certification, it’s important to recognize that this is one step on the sustainability journey. In the short term, fashion brands should start with understanding where their main environmental hotspots lie and take immediate action to reduce the impacts of their current operations… Ultimately, the goal should be to transform business models, shifting away from a ‘take, make, waste’ approach to full circularity and operating within the limits of the planet – separating profitability from product volumes. To this end, companies are already trialling repair programs, rental and resale schemes, pre-order models and more.”

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‘Clear, transparent and comparable’: Beauty giants launch EcoBeautyScore Consortium

EcoBeautyScore Consortium

Counting the cost of fashion

BBC | Quantis’ Global Fashion + Sporting Goods Lead, Philipp Meister, was invited as a guest on BBC World Service podcast The Climate Question to unpack the fashion industry’s contribution to climate change and solutions to reduce its impact. He was joined by guests Claire Bergkamp (COO, Textile Exchange), Vanessa Friedman (Fashion Editor, New York Times) and Lily Cole (model, actor and podcast host) in this episode, which offers an overview of the state of sustainability in fashion, the cost paid by society and the planet, as well as promising efforts to change course.

BBC The Climate Question

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Fashion Is Overselling Circularity And Recycling — But There Is Hope

Forbes | A new piece in Forbes explores the limits of recycling and circularity as immediate solutions to the reduce the fashion industry’s impact — and cites Quantis research to back it up. Our Measuring Fashion report breaks down the extent to which circular fibers can bring emissions reductions — of around 10% — and points to the top driver of the sector’s footprint: emissions in the material and production phases. Given the scale and speed of change needed to transform the fashion industry, brands need clear and bold action plans to tackle their biggest sources of impact — in addition to exploring and scaling solutions in circularity and recycling. This piece offers a thorough look into what the industry needs to fast-track sustainability.

Forbes - Quantis - Fashion and Recycling

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CNBC International | Quantis’ Daniel Baertschi was invited to share insights on regenerative agriculture as part of a CNBC report on Nestlé‘s plans to promote a new approach to farming to reach its net zero goals. In the interview, Daniel explains the benefits of a regenerative system: “We need to find ways to mainstream a positive agricultural system — and regenerative agriculture is exactly the system that allows every farmer to make progress starting from where they’re at.”

With agriculture responsible for up to a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, many companies are looking to regenerative agriculture as a key piece of the sustainability transformation. Daniel points out that, while commitments to this model are a positive indicator that companies are recognizing the need for a deep shift, the real work starts now: “There is a lot of interest for regenerative agriculture from corporates like Nestlé and others and that’s a good sign. It doesn’t mean it’s already done — it’s a long journey.” Discover the full report to hear Daniel’s perspective, alongside Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider and Head of Sustainable Agriculture, Pascal Chapot.

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Vogue Business | Major luxury brands were talking biodiversity at the IUCN World Conservation Congress and Vogue Business wrote about how the industry is tackling its impact on nature. Referenced in the article is the work led by Quantis to assess LVMH‘s footprint on nature, as Hélène Valade, environmental development director, explains the importance of robust measurements as key to build awareness about biodiversity impacts.

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better manufacturing practices

The Sustainable Mag | The Italian Chamber of Fashion published a document — sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Ecological Transition — to guide the entire Italian fashion industry towards better manufacturing practices in collaboration with Quantis Italy and a team of experts and brands — among them, Giorgio ArmaniValentinoGucciPrada and Versace. Quantis provided expertise to support guidelines on mixtures and chemicals in the fashion production chain for increased sustainability. Discover the article for more on how the new guidelines aim to help fashion players rethink entire production models and supply chains to transition to a sustainable industry.

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Quantis tool built for manufacturers to assess packaging’s environmental footprint

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Waste360 | Quantis’ digital solution — eQopack — was featured in Waste360, in a piece that outlines how the tool brings ecodesign expertise in-house to enable packaging engineers to make sustainable design choices. More and more brands are committing to drastically reduce packaging waste, yet the average packaging designer lacks the time and expertise to make these promises actionable. Quantis Head of Digital Solutions Catherine Zwahlen is interviewed to explain how the tool was developed in tandem with users to fill this gap and why brands are seeking a packaging design solution based on science. She’s quoted alongside one of eQopack’s first users, Bel, and Quantis’ technology partner Kleis.

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MPR News | As part of MPR News‘ “The Greener Good” series, Quantis’ Charlotte Bande was invited to share insights on how companies should approach business model transformation as part of a robust climate strategy. Marketplace‘s senior economics contributor Chris Farrell guided a lively discussion with public policy insights from Yale University‘s Daniel Esty and a corporate perspective from Dave Rapaport of Ben & Jerry‘s.

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Il Sole 24 Ore | Quantis’ Make Up the Future Report was featured in Il Sole 24 Ore in a piece that spotlighted sustainability insights for the cosmetics industry. It tackled some of the preconceived notions about the environmental hotspots across cosmetic brands’ value chains, as well as consumer preferences that shed light on the trends. 78% seek plastics-free packaging; 76% prefer to buy sustainable products and 75% opt for refillable and reusable packaging. Discover more insights in the article.

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These new fragrances will be made from carbon captured from the atmosphere

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Quantis calculates footprint of daily activities for Swiss media (in French)

RTS ecobilans daily routine

RTS | What is my digital footprint? How many cups of coffee are equal to the environmental footprint of my steak?

To empower the Swiss public to make more informed environmental choices, Quantis was tasked with calculating the environmental footprint of 50+ day-to-day activities with the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). Highlighting new insights on people’s digital footprint, our co-founder Sébastien Humbert shared results on Radio Télévision Swiss (RTS).

Discover the story (in French):

RTS ecobilans daily routine

Store 1000 pictures on the cloud for 1 year = 6 coffees

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Eat a 250g swiss beef steak = 68,6 coffees

The NEC metric for sustainable finance highlighted in a French Opinion Finance article

NEC metric for sustainable finance

Opinion Finance | Recently highlighted in a French Opinion Finance article, The innovative NEC (Net Environmental Contribution) metric for sustainable finance developed by Quantis, Sycomore Asset Management and ICare & Consult will be used to manage a 230 million euros fund dedicated to fighting climate change. Our partner Sycomore Asset Management won the bid to manage this European Equity Fund commissioned by 12 institutional investors, including la Caisse des dépôts and EDF. This call for tenders reveals the growing interest in integrating environmental impact into asset management, as well as the need for robust metrics that integrate full value-chain impacts. The NEC metric is a publicly available metric managed and improved by the NEC Initiative.

NEC metric for sustainable finance

Looking to leverage environmental science to make smarter decisions? Reach out to...

Vanessa Pasquet
Senior Sustainability Consultant

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