The election of Australia’s first conservative federal government since 2007 has caused an outbreak of anxiety among environmentalists.

Besides the obviously anti-environmental policies outlined by the Coalition before the 2013 poll, including the repeal of the carbon price and the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the new government has since then announced further cutbacks and challenges for the sustainable economy. Finance Minister Matthias Corman announced that the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the nation’s top clean energy research body, is being abolished, and the government has already appointed noted man made climate change skeptic, Dick Warburton, to chair the impending review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). There is strong pressure from backbench MPs, cabinet members and conservative media to dump the RET altogether.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s recent remark that he finds wind turbines ‘utterly offensive‘ has coloured debate.

The question for firms that have invested in environmentally sustainable business models and products is how to position themselves in this new political context. What is the sustainability communications strategy?

The first point to make is that it is important not to overestimate the implications of the public anti-carbon tax backlash of recent years. Climate change as a political issue is, at least to some extent, cyclical. The severe drought that plagued south-eastern Australia from 1997 to 2009 was book-ended by what the CSIRO calls ‘one of the strongest La Niña episodes the world has ever experienced’ in 2010/2011. With the drought replaced by heavy rainfall and even flooding, voters lost the most tangible reminder of what a deteriorating climate might look like. While climate scientists have estimated that extreme weather events like floods and bushfires are both likely to be more extreme under a changing climate, drought arguably constituted the most entrenched image of climate change in voters’ minds.

Looking ahead, environmental conditions are likely to deteriorate over the medium to long-term with climatologists predicting the transition from La Nina to El Nino is likely to take place later this year, the political pendulum may well swing back in favour of environmental action as the public is reminded of what a damaged environment looks like – and feels like for the family budget. Throughout May this year, warm weather has begun to hurt the profits of clothes retailers trying to move stock no one can wear, highlighting that the economic effects of a warmer climate reach almost every section of the economy.

Conversely, all Australians feel, at some level, ‘climate fatigue’ in the wake of the bruising carbon tax debate.

So how can firms position sustainability beyond its natural eco-conscious constituency? Here are some thoughts.

Firstly, by identifying other consumer values above and beyond the environmental politics of the past few years. In a public debate with former Gillard economic advisor Stephen Koukoulos, prominent conservative commentator Judith Sloan made the curious remark that government debt matters ‘for moral as well as economic reasons’.

She was referring principally to what she saw as the intergenerational injustice of parents and grandparents leaving huge costs for their descendents to pay off. What was striking was to see an ideological conservative framing an issue in explicitly intergenerational and moral terms, when this is precisely the reason why so many environmentalists take the trouble to embrace sustainable actions and products.

The issue of intergenerational justice has hardly been absent from environmental campaigns. But the issue until now has not really been framed in traditionally conservative terms of thrift and personal responsibility, but rather in terms of an altruistic, collective responsibility for the sake of the greater good at a societal level. It’s been ‘I’m doing it for the world, and for everyone’s kids’ rather than ‘I’m doing it for my kids, as a responsible parent who believes in leaving my kids better of instead of leaving them with a burden’.

“The evidence is so obvious,” he declares, “You don’t have to go to the scientists, you just have to look at the trees in Melbourne.”
– Rob Adams, City of Melbourne

Tying sustainability to family responsibility, and traditional conservative family values, may help ecologically indifferent consumers to recognise that climate change and environmental issues are essential a kind of eco-debt that current policy is creating.

A second theme to emphasise is to take advantage of major technological advances and improvements in the economies of various green sectors. A survey on the diffusion of green technology by Allan, Jaffe and Sin (April 2014) found that ‘there would be significant benefit to increased investment in studies that look at questions such as the role of information provision, networks and framing issues in households’ and firms’ adoption decisions’.

A report by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change into public attitudes towards renewables found that despite negative national media coverage of green energy for the previous two years (supposedly on the grounds of landscape aesthetics and cost), a solid 77% of the British public still viewed renewable energy favourably.  The lesson is that while environmental premiums are divisive, the products themselves are popular. Further declines in cost curves and advances in innovation are worth pursuing and advertising loudly.

The third possible theme to consider, while only selectively applicable, is worth leveraging wherever possible. Desire among some consumers for independence from power companies is a significant, yet environmentally indifferent, factor in motivating the take-up of solar panels. Anecdotal evidence links the increasing uptake of biofuels and solar panels in the American Deep South to a certain Calvinist, libertarian, fiercely independent frontier mentality – equal parts suspicion of big government and the United State’s dependence on foreign energy supplies.

While such sentiments are notably more muted in Australia, there is a consumer group out there that has mixed-to-no-interest in the environment, but considerable interest in a DIY, self-reliant approach to many of their consumer needs, especially energy. Grey water products, solar hot water, and rooftop pholtovoltaics provide interesting opportunities to this consumer group for these reasons – ones that should not be ignored or under-defined by savvy environmental marketers.

Managers who can leverage these insights and re-position their firms accordingly stand a better chance of thriving in the sustainability sector of 2014.

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Image credit: via Channel Nine