CHASM Annual Conference 2022

Environmental Sustainability and Household Financial Security: A policy-focused summary of the key findings

Overview

The CHASM annual conference, which was held online on 23 June 2022, was attended by 73 participants, drawn from Europe, Asia and North America and representing academia, policy bodies, the third sector, think tanks and consultancies.

The conference wove together three important themes in a comprehensive narrative around financial vulnerability and environmental concerns:

  1. Paying the cost

The cost of energy and related costs for low-income households.

  1. Going green

The appetite for consumers to take into account environmental concerns as part of their financial decision making.

 

CHASM Annual Conference - Reflections by guest speaker Dr Mat Despard, UNC Greensboro
  1. The challenge of change

The challenges in transitioning to net carbon given people’s attitudes and circumstances.

Speakers drawn from UK policy bodies and think tanks (Carl Packman, Fair by Design Campaign at Barrow Cadbury Trust; Emma Stockdale, Nest Insight; Luke Murphy, IPPR, and Jonny Marshall, Resolution Foundation) were invited to provide key policy insights and highlight ongoing challenges that could benefit from academic input. Mat Despard, Associate Professor in Social Work from UNC, Greensboro, provided additional reflection on the opportunities to share information and build knowledge at an international level.  Consequently, the conference facilitated a deeper understanding of the potential challenges ahead for those aiming to support consumers’ financial security, and highlighted several areas for future research.

Introduction

Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels has never been more problematic. Not only is it detrimental to the environment, but it also creates dependencies with geo-political, and possibly security, implications. In this context, the UK government’s commitment to achieve Net Zero could potentially bring multifaced benefits. Even so, for it to be successful, it will require a supportive policy framework that avoids detriment and promotes access among even the most vulnerable consumers. 

The timing of such a major change is also challenging. Recent expenditure shocks caused by higher fuel prices and general inflation add significant pressure on households already suffering from the income shocks created by COVID-19 and the challenges in building sufficient emergency savings in a low-interest environment.

At the same time, the combined pressures may also make it easier to communicate the urgency of minimising use and shifting to renewable sources of energy.  As households seek ways to reduce their expenditure, they may be more open to improving insulation, switching to renewable energy sources and more efficient appliances. However, this can only be achieved with significant investment (of time and money), potentially creating significant barriers and disadvantage for some vulnerable households.

With these challenges in mind, the CHASM conference brought together leading experts to broaden discussion on the implications of environmental policies on consumers.  It explored the extent to which some energy consumers are already disadvantaged, the appetite of the UK public for more environmentally sustainable policies, and the challenges that remain in moving from awareness to action.

 

1. Paying the cost

Speakers explained how households on the lowest income tend to pay more for everyday services, including utility bills; a situation described as the ‘poverty premium’.  Research by Fair by Design Campaign indicates that, on average, this premium is costing low-income households £430 a year (The Cost of Living and Levelling up, p3, Fair by Design, 2022). They argue that the premium is caused by a combination of actions by regulators and businesses, as well as changes to social policy.

The poverty premium includes cost incurred by consumers who stay on standard energy tariffs, rather than switching to the most cost-effective option. 

Fair by Design have identified several barriers that may prevent people from taking action to reduce their outgoings on energy. These can be categorised as: lack of access to the digital tools and infrastructure required to search for a better deal; low awareness and trust in the services available; and a perceived lack of time and value in seeking a lower deal.

Some progress has been made in mitigating the negative impact of the rising costs for some households. Resolution Foundation note that the most recent support from the UK government has delivered the necessary financial support for the lowest-income households.  However, such support may need to be sustained over a significant length of time if current trends continue; putting additional strain on the Government budget and making an exit strategy all the more complex.

 

2. Going Green

Speakers reported various sources of evidence indicating that the public has an appetite for ‘greening’, but with significant caveats.  Two issues were apparent from the findings presented. The first is that there are so many definitions, elements and measures relating to environmental concerns that there is currently no consistent way to monitor such appetite. The second is that there is a huge gap between what people claim to be interested in, and their level of motivation to change. 

Carl Packman from Fair by Design Campaign at Barrow Cadbury Trust reported that over half of all consumers are more concerned with climate change than they were 10 years ago, and that it is the second most popular policy priority for consumers under the age of 40.  However, they quote research indicating that overall, just a third of adults in the UK (34%) consider climate change as one of their environmental priorities, indicating the size of the challenge of ‘going green’, and the variety of issues that consumers want to see addressed within this broad category.  Nest Insight also found that whilst more people put tackling climate in their top three policy issue (above living wage and access to good education), this was still only a priority for 39% of respondents.

A review by Nest Insight of the existing research indicates that 82% of pension fund members would be more likely to engage with their pension if they were aware that it was encouraging a positive impact (Money listens: The positive power of pensions 2021, p43, LGIM, 2021) and that over half of pension savers want their money to be invested responsibly to tackle climate change (Royal London, 2021).  However, they also note that other research finds that most people believe that their pension is already invested in companies that meet basic criteria in terms of paying a living wage (Summary results of PensionBee’s annual survey on customer investment views, p2, PensionBee, 2021), perhaps indicating a general perception that ESG issues are the responsibility of fund managers rather than individual investors.  Furthermore, new research undertaken by Nest Insight, which categorises respondents according to both their engagement with ESG issues and personal pensions, shows that most people who are motivated by ESG still do not engage with their pension, again suggesting that they anticipate that the funds already take such issues into account.

 

3. The challenge of change

The legal commitment to reduce and replace carbon-emitting fuels will impact everyone. Speakers provided recent evidence of the barriers to be overcome to manage the change, including the urgent need to improve the insulation of existing housing stock.

Fair by Design are concerned that, since low-income consumers are already paying a poverty premium on energy and typically spend a much larger percentage of their income on their energy use, any additional cost to consumers to switch to Net Zero will continue to widen inequalities.

The review undertaken by Nest Insights indicates that there are limits to the extent to which people will put themselves out to make change.  They found that typically people feel that the change need to be personally beneficial, and evidence based.  Furthermore, their own experimental study of unregistered Nest members found that whilst any form of communication seemed to motivate greater engagement with pensions, the environmental message was only the most impactful for those who consider ESG to be important anyway. Across the whole sample a simple savings message encouraged more activations than any other approach, leading to the inevitable conclusion that there is an opportunity cost to using responsible investment as an anchor for retirement engagement.

Research by IPPR looked in more detail about what people consider to be fair action in terms of tackling climate change and other natural emergencies.  Consistent with findings elsewhere, people stressed elements of change that would make life better for them and their community. In particular, they suggested that conversations about climate cannot be separated from those related to nature.  They also asked for leadership from government in partnership with other sectors.

Proposed aids and solutions

The organisations represented at the conference have identified various possible solutions to some of the issues raised:

Ascension Ventures

Ascension Ventures is a Fair by Design Venture Fund that supports early-stage companies that design fairness into their offer; providing a way of serving low-income consumers more fairly.  

People's Dividend

IPPR proposes that people benefit from a ‘people’s dividend’ resulting from the transition to Net Zero, with benefits such as free public transport, and priority given to well-being enhancing policies such as the preservation of nature. Like Fair by Design, they also stress the importance of distributing the cost of change fairly, avoiding additional financial burden for low-income households. Furthermore, they recommend providing access to affordable credit for people who need to make changes to their home or mode of transport.

Communication Programme

There is a clear need to keep the public informed of changes.  IPPR found that people would welcome a communication programme similar to that used during the COVID-19 pandemic, to keep the public fully informed of the threat and the necessary changes. This approach would also help to ensure that policies are sensitive to the needs of local communities, something that is important to maintain consumer engagement.

Framing

Nest Insight also note the importance of ‘framing’ a message in a way that appeals to the recipient.  This is relevant both when developing survey questions and when developing interventions to motivate engagement.  For example, they found that people respond more positively to environmental messages stressing the potential for positive impact than the avoidance of negative outcomes.

Future research and policy agenda

Monitor global impact

The move towards greening a highly-developed country is not without challenges both at home and abroad. As noted by participants in the conference, there is no possibility of achieving a satisfactory outcome without focusing on the whole picture, from the impact on the existing, global fossil-fuel industry to the consequences of building an entire economy around capturing renewable energy sources; which includes everything from consideration of land use, sustainability of mineral extraction, to production and delivery.  These elements should be monitored to meet the publics’ expectation that investment is consistent with ESG principles and preserves nature. 

Communicate well

Moving forward, it will be essential to consider how to design appropriate communication campaigns, education and information to help people to understand the transition and making appropriate choices.  The research presented at the conference provides a good starting point for thinking about the design of such tools, but additional research could provide further insights around consumer engagement and action.

Encourage data sharing

The energy industry collects a wealth of data, relating to both the supply and demand of products and services. With improved access to anonymised data, this resource could be used to inform research and policy, preventing hardship and improving outcomes.

Find out more about household budgeting decisions in times of change

More research is needed to understand how people reallocate limited resources, and how decisions are made when many things are changing simultaneously (such as the cost of credit, real value of income, cost of living and the wider policy environment).

Consider inflation measures

The way in which we measure inflation has consequences for the economy, the public and future policy. Researchers and policy makers need to understand how the changing habits caused by going green impact inflation, and make timely adjustments.

Keep in mind related policy issues

Environmental concerns have implications across a wide range of related policies, from food security to disaster risk management. Households face challenges across each area, and it is therefore essential to maintain a broad perspective when addressing a specific issue such as energy prices or incentivising better insulation.  Further research needs to take account of the broader picture.

Share the lessons learned

The lessons learned as the UK seeks to implement change without contributing to further inequalities will also have significant relevance across the globe.  Research should highlight the successes, failures and ongoing challenges so that others can learn from them and improve their own processes.

Annex: Speaker names, affiliations and links