How life favours sustainability

It’s high time to put sustainability on a more secure human footing. People have a desire to sustain and improve their lives: build on that.

The debate around sustainability often has an eschatological, end-of-times vibe. Just think of the Last Generation, whose name already indicates that the end is near. In daily life, however, it’s rare that the last things come first. No matter how important those “last things” may be, life must go on.

The fact that life favours sustainability is not without irony. Evolution eliminates everything that’s not sustainable. In theory, at least, there shouldn’t be a contradiction between people’s lives and sustainability. In the long run, this will be most certainly true. Life that’s not sustainable will end at some point.

But in the long run we are all dead, as economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote 100 years ago.

And so, the dark side of this truism is possible extinction (as reflected in the name of another activist movement). However, the light side manifests itself in an idiom: life finds a way. People value different things, but most people know that they can’t always get what they want. Life is always about making choices.

Thus, the tension between life and sustainability is real. It’s another truism that our current Western lifestyle isn’t sustainable. What’s more: when it comes to sustainability, there is a disconnect between organisations and people. According to a 2022 survey conducted by our parent company Accenture, 59% of people don’t strongly relate to the idea of living sustainably.

The relevancy gap

This is the result of what the Accenture report calls the “relevancy gap”: organisations and people approach sustainability differently. What organisations assume doesn’t match people’s reality. Their strategies and terminology end up disconnected and so alienate people. People do make sustainable choices, but don’t relate to an organisation’s idea of sustainability. Here’s a great line from the report:

The true drivers of action are human values

Turns out that sustainability is too abstract an idea for the majority of people. It’s disconnected not only from their daily lives, but also from their values. In daily life, people always have to make trade-offs between competing demands and limited resources. The same applies to the economy as a whole – and to each individual economic actor.

But consumption, as the report states, isn’t governed by economic factors alone.

Instead, consumption is a cultural phenomenon governed by people’s varying values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, identities and aspirations. To bring everyone into sustainable consumption more significantly, we must address these cultural dynamics, incorporating the idea of making sustainability cheaper and easier for people but moving beyond it too.

Adding sustainability to the mix is neither easy (because it’s too abstract) nor would it make people’s lifestyles sustainable in one fell swoop. In the best case, it could be one among other competing values. But all is not lost, since people do want to live sustainably. They just need to incorporate sustainability into their existing lives. The good news, according to the Accenture report:

People don’t have to care or know about sustainability to act sustainably.

There’s no need for a giant re-education programme. There already are universal human values that strongly relate to sustainability – values like caring, self-fulfilment, belonging, or openness. It’s up to organisations to use these values and connect their efforts and offerings around sustainability with people’s everyday lives.

Here’s another great line from the report:

It’s time to stop making people sustainable, and start making sustainability human.

This is an interesting shift of perspective and one that organisations can apply to other issues as well. In a way, it’s the essence of the seminal shift away from 20th-century, top-down mass communication towards 21st-century, human-centric or life-centric thinking.

People’s desire for sustainable living

In a second report, published in late 2023, Accenture doubles down on the connections between people’s lives and sustainability:

Human goals are as relevant as planetary goals when it comes to driving people’s sustainable behaviors.

When it’s narrowly defined, sustainability seems to have less impact; people don’t find themselves and their goals part of the picture. What’s more, businesses, brand messaging and advertising have less impact than friends and family when it comes to sustainable action. But people expect more from companies and organisations.

How people perceive sustainability — and consequently act or not — is influenced by their take on everyday life. Their worldviews. Why? Because, at its core, sustainable living relates to how people think about the future and the past, and to their perception of their roles, responsibilities and opportunities for creating better circumstances for themselves and others.

In other words: sustainability has a temporal dimension. It’s not only about our present lives, but also about our future and our past. It’s about our worldviews.

Six archetypes

The report identifies six archetypes of worldviews and relationships to sustainable living (defined as “living in a way that considers the impact on other people and the planet today and in the future”):

  • Detached Fatalism
  • Uncertain Skepticism
  • Disheartened Altruism
  • Self-interested Idealism
  • Determined Pragmatism
  • Diligent Optimism

These archetypes are intended to help organisations engage with everyone, not only the 24% of people who are already on board (the “diligent optimists”).

The clue is that most, if not all, people have a desire to sustain and improve their lives. Life favours sustainability. But the ‘S word’, as the report calls it, often has divisive effects. It doesn’t resonate with enough people, and even alienates some of them. People have different reasons for acting sustainably, and thus organisations need to address them differently.

According to the report, there already is a high level of potential demand for sustainable consumption. It’s up to businesses to translate this demand into mass adoption. People, and their lives, are the key here.