Win win strategies: aligning sustainable interests in a downturn

As we move further away from the dying days of Theresa May’s administration it becomes increasingly surprising to consider the ease with which the UK’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 was enshrined into law by a Prime Minister who was minding the shop until her successor was decided. Whether it is the context afforded by distance or the political turbulence of the intervening three years, it’s difficult to imagine that level of ecological cooperation being harnessed for any issue today; particularly as we have just left the just-minding-the-shop stage of another prime minister’s administration.

The 2019 legislative instrument itself is surprisingly brief; it simply adjusted the Labour government’s 2008 Climate Change Act in one vital regard: “in subsection (1), for ‘80%’ substitute ‘100%’.” With a startling economy of verbiage the UK became, in the government’s own description “the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.”

One reason that it’s difficult to countenance such a commitment being made today is the particular global eco-political moment of the day and its sizeable impact on the public consciousness. We were all in a very specific ecological headspace in the late teens, moved by the Blue Planet effect, our attention gathered in by Thunberg’s sabbatical crossing of the Atlantic, our optimism buoyed by news from the G20 at Osaka. Perhaps inevitably given all that has happened since, the unity of purpose which engendered this geo-political moment has begun to dissipate over the intervening three years and the issue itself has become more contentious.

Within the UK in particular, whether it’s the search for a new lever for the politics of division to pull in a post-Brexit age, or a consequence of the trend towards populism in our discourse, the air over this once uncontested space has become increasingly heated in recent months. And it’s likely to become more contentious still: as the Conservative leadership battle addressed its right-of-centre electorate, the nation’s Overton window was nudged; it’s perhaps inevitable in this context that divisions over the 2050 target will become more pronounced. Add to this record-breaking heatwaves this summer and a rapid escalation in the cost of fuel at the pump and in the home, and it’s surely likely that carbon neutrality will become more newsworthy as well as more disputed. We’ll probably all be talking and thinking about this issue just as much as we were in 2019, but this time we might not all agree quite so readily.

This conversation has already begun, with Prime Minister Liz Truss suggesting during her campaign for Conservative leader that she would suspend green levies on fuel bills in order to reduce household costs by £153 per year. It’s precisely this issue, the impact on household finances, that is likely to be the catalyst for reopening discussion on the UK’s carbon roadmap. The counter position has moved on in the last decade or so: arguments that climate change is not man-made, or suggestions that we cannot un-make it no longer have the valence they held in the nineties or the noughties. Instead the battle will be fought in people’s pockets; we won’t be asked to believe that climate change isn’t real, rather convinced that we shouldn’t care. The cost of sustainability to the economy or to us personally will become the argument de nos jour.

Space & Time’s recent research into sustainability motivators pertaining to the property market spoke to this situation. 2,000 in-market consumers were asked to reflect on the role of sustainability in their purchase decision. We identified two distinct groups, segmented by their attitudes regarding sustainability: Eco Lifestylers were motivated primarily by ethical concerns, while Money Saving Greens (as the name suggests) were interested to learn about sustainable reasons to buy, but primarily as regards their impact on household finances.

Among our sample, 65% agreed that sustainability issues were important in the purchase decision: clearly this is an issue that remains front of mind and housebuyers in general are keen to do their part. Where we began to see some distance between the two subsets concerned the type of sustainability that new homes could offer the consumer: 54% of Eco Lifestylers would pay more for a house built with sustainable methods while only 36% of Money Savings Greens would put their cash down in support of the developer’s carbon footprint. When asked about paying more for a home that supported a sustainable lifestyle however, the interest from both groups increased: 67% of Eco Lifestylers would pay more in order to live more sustainably, and so would 50% of Money Saving Greens. When combining these propositions and inviting people to consider paying more for a sustainably built home which also supported sustainable living, we saw a confluence of interests: 72% of Eco Lifestylers were willing to pay more and so were 55% of Money Saving Greens.

This aligning of interests captures two distinct motivators and harnesses them to the same goal: one which, incidentally, is also to the global good. We call this a win win strategy, but really it’s that unicorn of marketing messaging, a win win win: the developer’s carbon cost is minimised, the consumer’s carbon cost is minimised and over the long term the consumer saves money. This facility to engineer a win win win is not unique to housebuilding but it’s not all that common either: manufacturers of sustainable soap or clothing can parade their green credentials, but they can’t offer an opportunity to offset a higher up-front cost with lower bills for the next 30 years.

As the cost of living situation changes in the coming months, as fuel bills increase this autumn both as a further hike in the cost per kwh materialises and simply due to the onset of winter, the cost of heating will surely become yet more prominent in the public discourse, while the size of the potential win to be found in sustainable living will increase. In this context the opportunity for housebuilders is clear; developers can push on an open door and have their message amplified at the same time. As the cost of borrowing rises, the importance of saving on heating bills is only amplified, giving new build a vital differentiator from the second-hand market and allowing consumers to offset the adverse impact on their finances in one area by protecting their exposure to another cost.

For our research we deliberately separated the Money Saving Greens from the Eco Lifestylers in order to isolate and understand their different motivators, but in doing so we made clear that with an appropriate messaging strategy, such a distinction is unnecessary. Although they have different reasons for supporting sustainable living, both groups ultimately do want the same things, and those things offer a terrific reason to buy a new home, both as an alternative to buying an older home or, increasingly, as an alternative to not moving home. Even if the route to net zero becomes more contentious in the next few years and we are all forced to reflect on the cost of carbon neutrality at a time when our own finances aren’t what we might hope, new-build homes offer the consumer an opportunity to face both directions in the argument: to service the interests of the planet and of their own finances at once.