The individual versus the collective effort in environmental progress

Apr 23, 2024 | Publications

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Brands have the power to revitalise the value of sustainability, its collective progress, and individual benefits—and now is the time for them to do it.

Sustainability has become a prominent topic in Asia, with countries increasingly engaging in efforts to address environmental concerns. As awareness of global warming grows, evidenced by rising global temperatures, sustainability has taken centre stage. In response, brands are increasingly incorporating sustainable practices and values into their products.

However, despite much effort, the critical value of sustainability has not yet been able to break into consumers’ hearts. In Asia, sustainability is largely still perceived as a ‘good to have’. However, there is a clear gap in understanding why consumers should make it a top consideration in purchasing a product.

The animistic and monotheistic context of nature

Before the concept of science existed, nature was believed to be the bearer of a higher power incomparable to humankind. In Chinese culture, mountains are the embodiment of sacred power. It is a manifestation of nature’s vital energy (qi). It holds the existence of the great medicinal herbs, magical fruits, and alchemical minerals of longevity (Department of Asian Art, The Met 2024).

The power of nature Is viewed as inherently unpredictable and beyond human control. However, it can be influenced through a chosen intermediary custodian. For generations, the volcanic mountain of Merapi in Java has had a designated Kuncen/Dukan. This mediator holds the power to protect and communicate with the volcano’s spirit through rituals, ensuring harmonious relations and the well-being of the surrounding communities.

Hence, in certain regions of Asia, there appears to be a disconnect between ordinary humans (consumers) and nature. The responsibility of connecting, communicating and protecting nature is the task of the intermediary with authority—be it a high-ranking king or appointed figures. Common people are rendered powerless and primarily act as recipients who comply.

The shift in context—nature from a capitalist lens

As the world underwent rapid globalisation, perceptions of nature evolved over the years. Fuelled by the industrialisation era, nature became a crucial resource to sustain this transformation. Viewing it through the Indonesian perspective, Dutch colonisation played a significant role in driving this change. With the imposition of authority and expertise, the desire to control nature through advancements in agricultural tools and irrigation was instigated and routinely implemented.

Consequently, this mindset became ingrained in the local culture, shifting the dynamic of the relationship between nature and humans into one where nature is viewed as a resource to be exploited for the prosperity of humankind. Nature is no longer revered as it once was. The narrative is controlled by those in positions of power and knowledge, typically governments and corporations. In today’s modern age, the emphasis on progress is heightened while the attention and awareness towards nature continue to weaken.

Countries around the world, including those in Asia, race towards economic progress. Most of them have successfully reached an applauded milestone. However, this comes at the price of harming the environment.

Quoted from Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Bangkok, for The Jakarta Post in 2023:

“This year’s Asia- Pacific SDG Progress Report published by ESCAP features pace-leaders of the region who have successfully implemented evidence-based policies to accelerate progress… However, it is unsettling to observe that progress towards climate action (Goal 13) is slipping away. The region is both a victim of the effects of climate change and a perpetrator of climate change.”

Currently, environmental commitment is a complex aspiration, tangled up with the motivation to progress as a country, community, and even as individuals. When juxtaposed the choice often leans towards the path of progress as it is perceived to have a higher urgency and greater impact for consumers.

Environmental commitment might not be an easy, top-of-mind choice for consumers. Sometimes, it might be seen as a sacrifice one must make for the environment. And even then, the impact is not tangible enough to drive motivation. This is because, in Asia, this choice is immediately linked to a higher price, usage impracticality, and going back to the old way. It lacks beneficial value for self and representation of progress. So, what can a brand do to tackle this?

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Looking at the perception surrounding the topic itself, 3 key questions need to be resolved by the brand to drive the motivation of environmental commitment:

How my choice can benefit the collective

How my choice benefits me as an individual

How it can give me the power to impact

How can my choice benefit the collective?

While economic progress is typically determined by those in authority, it is a shared aspiration of the community. Aligned with the deeply ingrained value of collectivism, Asian consumers aspire to advance collectively. Therefore, it is crucial to make decisions following this outlook. Embracing environmental commitments does not mean a regression to traditional practices but rather a move towards a progressive and contemporary future.

An example of this trend is the rising popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) in Indonesia. EVs are not only gaining traction in Indonesia but also globally, being hailed as the future of transportation for their environmentally friendly attributes and advanced technological features such as self-driving and self-parking capabilities. Embracing this transformative shift, Indonesia is actively promoting the adoption of EVs over traditional petrol vehicles. Beyond the tangible benefit of reducing air pollution in the country, the adoption of EVs is part of Indonesia’s plan to position itself as a key market and production centre for EVs, leveraging the nation’s cobalt reserves.

“This, the government hopes, will incentivise foreign investment in local EV production facilities. Indonesia’s aims are ambitious: President Joko Widodo has set a target of having EVs make up 20% of all car sales by 2025, and the Indonesian government aims for 600,000 EVs to be domestically produced by 2030” said Sebastian Strangio in The Diplomat.

How can my choice benefit me as an individual?

In this context, valuing individual benefits is just as crucial as considering the collective good. Instead of viewing it as a sacrifice, opting for environmental commitments should be seen as a rewarding investment.

Continuing the EV example, the government has given consumers an incentive by removing the luxury tax and import tax, lowering the value-added tax to only 1%. In most cases, this is perceived as a rare and highly beneficial opportunity for consumers – an easy low-price discount for such a high-tech and luxurious product. In addition, EVs require a much lower operating cost compared to petrol. For one kilometer, EV’s operating cost can be five times lower than petrol.

How can my choice give me the power to impact?

When individuals make an environmental commitment, engagement and involvement are expected. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the impact varies, with larger impacts often fuelling greater motivation for decision-making. Additionally, this perspective is linked with the sense of urgency for consumers to act.

Unfortunately, in the EV scenario, the urgency of action seems quite low. The adoption of EVs is mainly driven by high air pollution dominating the capital city. However, consumers generally believe that big manufacturers and corporations are the main cause of this issue. Hence, replacing a single petrol car is not powerful enough to turn this around.  

A contrasting narrative emerges when discussing the shift from plastic packaging to more sustainable materials, highlighting the pressing concern of plastic waste stemming mainly from individual and household consumption. In this context, the urgency for action is heightened, as consumers are depicted as the primary and most influential contributors to the issue.

In conclusion, despite its current popularity, environmental commitment has always been closely intertwined with Asian culture. Although it’s connection and importance might have waned in the past, it remains essential for a better and sustainable future. Brands, as influencers, have the power to revitalise this value by steering it in the right direction—playing a role in collective progress, individual benefits, and empowerment.

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