The government’s withdrawn Net Zero report shows where businesses can lead

Written by Tom Greenwood - November 17, 2021

A few weeks ago, the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, or Nudge Unit, released a report titled, Net Zero: Principles for Successful Behaviour Change Initiatives. It stated that technological solutions alone could not achieve the UK’s net zero goals and that significant behaviour changes would be required in combination with technological innovation. The report highlighted the need for the government to take bold action to create and accelerate the necessary cultural changes.

The report was withdrawn just hours later, no doubt due to the fact that it highlighted the need for the government to do things that might not be popular. However, some people (including me) have saved copies and you can download the full report here

While the government might not be ready to lead the country to net zero and tackle the challenges head on, I believe that businesses could take leadership to help create the changes that are needed but which the government is afraid to talk about. 

Principles for cultural change

The report details nine principles that the government should embrace in order to encourage the necessary behavioural changes in society.

While some of these principles are specific to the government, such as “Incentivise businesses to provide low carbon solutions” and “Build a strong public mandate”, there are some principles that could be embraced by other types of organisations. These include:

  1. Lead by example
  2. Make it the default where possible
  3. Make it easy
  4. Leverage social norms and visibility
  5. Build a positive and fair narrative around co-benefits

These seem like universally good principles for creating cultural change and are worth keeping in mind when designing any corporate activities, policies or initiatives.

The report then goes on to highlight four key areas of behaviour change that need to be tackled. These are:

  1. Diet changes
  2. Home retrofits and energy transitions
  3. Aviation
  4. Electric vehicles

Let’s take a look at how businesses could help accelerate action in these areas. 

Diet changes

The report states that shifting dietary habits towards more environmental options (e.g. plant-based, local) and enabling sustainable agriculture is fundamental to achieving net zero. 

Businesses can take on this challenge themselves. For those in the food or catering industries, policies to use more plant-based, local and ecologically farmed ingredients can make a real impact and, if combined with positive communication, can help nudge the culture to normalise these dietary changes. 

Non-food businesses can also make an impact too. Company policies can be used to shift the type of food that companies serve in their canteens and vending machines, as well as other food purchases, such as event catering, team meals and meeting refreshments. 

At Wholegrain Digital, we have had a food policy prioritising local and organic food for many years. A few years ago, we asked whether we should update this policy to introduce some sort of plant based requirement. I was positively surprised that a majority of our team voted for a vegetarian food policy across all food where the company is paying. We updated the food policy accordingly.

Photo of team on our 2019 Christmas dinner at a vegan restaurant

One of our team Christmas meals at a vegan restaurant in Covent Garden

Of course, it can cause the occasional minor inconvenience or awkwardness, but on the whole it has been positively received by team members, clients and other stakeholders. Using a food policy in this way helps to normalise plant based food options and give some people an experience of different foods that they might otherwise not have tried. 

We didn’t need the government to mandate this. 

Food choices can be a sensitive topic, but I think that all businesses can take steps in this direction, leading by example, making it the default and putting food suppliers in place that make it easy.

Home retrofits and energy transitions

Home energy use might be considered outside of the remit of most businesses, but with the pandemic causing a rapid shift towards widespread home working, it’s time that businesses start to view the home energy of their employees within the scope of their own environmental impact. 

With this more holistic perspective of energy consumption, it becomes clear that businesses should help their employees to reduce home energy consumption and switch to renewable energy.

This could start with an employer simply providing employees with guidance on how to reduce energy use in their homes. I have to admit that this is something that we had done in the past but has fallen between the cracks so it’s something that I want to do again. That said, the Home Carbon Calculator that we designed for our client Nu Heat is a handy tool to assist in this communication. We also use Do Nation, the online platform where employees can learn about and pledge to take actions to reduce their environmental footprint.

In terms of the transition to renewable energy, I believe this to be a low hanging fruit. Four years ago we introduced a policy that offers employees one extra day of annual leave each year if they switch to a renewable energy tariff for their home electricity. After three years we achieved our goal of 100% of our employees making the switch. 

Imagine if every business offered this!

Businesses could go further though. The Behavioural Insights Teams report states that the biggest gains in decarbonising home energy will largely be achieved through encouraging costly one off switches to more efficient technologies or retrofits (e.g. solar panels, insulation, or heat pumps).

Businesses could potentially support these expensive transitions with interest free or low interest loans to employees for specific energy saving investments. Of course not all businesses can afford to do this, but it’s worth considering. And perhaps there are cheaper wins too, such as offering team members free LED light bulbs or arranging discounts with retailers that sell energy saving products. 

Aviation

The report highlights the high climate impact of air travel and a need to limit its growth against the government’s own projection of the sector growing 700% by 2050.

The Behavioural Insights Team highlights the difficulty in persuading the public to give up foreign holidays and suggests targeting frequent business flyers as well as trying to encourage more domestic tourism. 

Business travel is obviously something that businesses can affect directly, especially as the pandemic has helped to normalise and prove the efficacy of online video conferencing. Here at Wholegrain, we introduced a no fly policy six years ago after realising that air travel was one of the biggest sources of our emissions and yet was almost entirely avoidable. 

Property management company JLL introduced a policy in the UK stating that no flights would be approved for any trips that took less than 4.5 hours without a plane. This in effect prevented air travel for trips such as London to Paris, Amsterdam and Scotland and apparently saved the company money. Of course it might not be popular with all staff, but its real leadership in the journey to net zero.

Businesses could go further though and extend their influence beyond business travel. Although personal travel is outside the scope of a business’s responsibilities, they are still in a position of influence and could encourage more domestic travel and/or less air travel. This could be achieved simply by providing information to build a positive and fair message, including practical information on how to travel without an aeroplane, such as the Man in Seat 61. It could also be through people in leadership positions leading by example and sharing their experiences.

Vineeta and Tom outside Vienna central station

Vineeta and I on arrival at Vienna’s central station for WordCamp Europe

Companies could potentially also provide incentives to employees to reduce air travel. Two years ago we teamed up with climate charity Possible as an initial member of their Climate Perks scheme. Possible researched the reasons for why people use air travel for their holidays and designed an employee incentive scheme to support employees in traveling over land. They found that:

  • 50% of people are ready to reduce the amount they fly in order to protect the environment
  • Only 3% of people actually reduce the amount that they fly
  • Time is the #1 reason for people to fly.

The Climate Perks scheme is designed to allow employees extra time off to cover the increased travel time of overland travel. One of the limitations we have found is that people often travel with others, and if their travel partners don’t work for an employer with this incentive then the whole group will default to flying. However, if a high proportion of employers introduced similar schemes then this issue could be resolved.

Electric vehicles 

The report acknowledges the need for public transport to help decarbonise transport but they highlight that electric vehicles, although not as good environmentally, will enable a faster transition. This is because they offer an easier cultural shift in people’s lifestyles, but also because of historic infrastructural and geographical ‘lock-in’ to car-centric environments, which are hard to undo. 

Businesses could help accelerate this shift by accelerating their own plans to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles in favour of electric vehicles. This not only reduces emissions but also introduces employees to electric vehicle technology and helps to normalise it. 

Company cars are also a place where the business and the employees personal life overlap. There are tax incentives in place from the government to encourage adoption of electric vehicles for company cars, but employers can amplify this through proactive messaging about the environmental, social and financial benefits. 

Even in cases where a company does not provide company cars, there may be opportunities for the company to help nudge the culture towards electric vehicles. Again, this could be through company executives leading by example (Vineeta and I have had an electric car for seven years), or through company benefit schemes. For example, our friends at digital agency group The Panoply introduced the Green EV salary sacrifice scheme from Octopus Energy that can reduce the cost of leasing electric vehicles to the employee significantly by leveraging tax benefits. According to Neil Clark at The Panoply, it was fairly easy to set up and the financial risk to the employer and the employee is minimal, so it’s an effective way of lowering the barrier to entry.

Tesla charger at the Nimbus hostingoffice

Tesla charger at the Nimbus hosting office

Another option for employers who have staff parking is to install electric car chargers in the car park. For example, Nimbus hosting have two Tesla chargers installed at their offices that are open to all brands of electric car. It makes it easy for those with electric cars to charge up while also making the technology visible to other staff, helping to normalise it in the culture. 

Businesses can lead

I believe that there is a strong opportunity for businesses to lead the cultural transitions that need to happen to reduce emissions, and fill the vacuum of leadership left by the UK government.

At Wholegrain it’s become apparent to me that the initiatives that we already have in place have been hugely beneficial and I know that they have influenced not just past and present team members, but also other businesses. Writing this blog post made me realise just how much potential there is for us to go even further. 

Our annual company emissions at Wholegrain Digital are roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of one or two UK citizens. These are particularly low thanks to many of the policies that we already have in place, as well as the nature of our industry. However, with 20 people in our team, the potential to reduce emissions by supporting change in each person’s personal life could be a 10x larger opportunity.

Every company is different but I think if all businesses embraced the principles set out above and started taking even small steps forward to lead their employees in the four target areas of food, home energy, aviation and electric vehicles, it could have a huge ripple effect across society.