Climate change and CX: How can you help customers with their eco-anxiety?


This week's COP26 conference in Glasgow has intensified the global focus on the environment, and what brands and consumers can do to help the fight. But what role should service and CX professionals play in allaying their customers' concerns about climate change? 

2nd Nov 2021

Heather Sarno describes how the pressure of the climate crisis reached a tipping point after her son Jack was born and she found a curiosity to delve into scientific data related to the environment.         

"It was terrifying - for days, I couldn't sleep. My appetite went. I cried loads. I felt really, really anxious and upset. I remember being really frantic and asking my husband, 'did you know about this?' I felt so guilty about having had Jack.             

"Only this morning, I was crying about it. It's like a grief process."

The experience Sarno recounts is increasingly being referred to as eco-anxiety, and is now affecting one in five of people in myriad ways; from an innate sadness brought on by a futility to change the environment around us, to a guilt relating to the ecological impact of having children.

At a granular level it can develop a mindset that every consumptive and transactional decision we make is having a seemingly harmful effect on the climate.

Pressure on brands to address the climate crisis   

Whilst a relatively new phenomena, according to Psychology Today, eco-anxiety is now being treated as a psychological disorder. However, many leading voices have suggested that whilst the heightened fear and worry surrounding the environment is a negative for our collective mental health, it may yet lead to a net-positive effect, in terms of the increased awareness and action being taken by individuals to try and curb their carbon footprint.

It’s helping to put pressure on brands to do more for the environment beyond the ‘greenwash’ marketing campaigns that often hoodwinked consumers in the 90s and early 2000s. It is also partly a factor in the intense global focus being placed on 2021's UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow, UK.  

Recent examples range from the world’s largest investment fund vowing to curb its links to fossil fuel companies to supermarket chain Asda’s plan to cut plastic use by creating refill stations in its stores.

The UK's outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney’s declaration that “firms ignoring the climate crisis will go bankrupt” has helped sharpen minds. At the 2020 World Economic Forum, nearly two -thirds of UK chief executives said that climate change presents a threat to their business that they must act on.

A customer service mandate?

A brand’s impact on the environment is fundamentally led from the boardroom, through ethical values, policy and production decisions.

However, there’s also a cultural imperative that makes a brand’s stance on climate change the responsibility of all its employees. How does that translate to customers and their eco-anxieties?

According to research firm, E Source, the utilities sector is an example of where pressure is translating to customer interactions.

“There has been a push for utilities to adopt a more customer-centric business model and care about what their customers care about,” says E Source analyst, Shelby Kuenzli.

“Millennials are especially concerned about the environment… 83% of millennials also said it was extremely or very important to them that companies implement programs to improve the environment.”

With Ipsos MORI’s 2019 Global Trends report highlighting that 37% of people now make purchasing decisions based on the environment, there’s a growing opinion that in order to allay customers’ fears about how our transactions with a brand might affect climate change, the responsibility of relaying a brand’s environmental stance may inevitably lie in the hands of those working in customer-facing roles. 

“The issue of organisations respecting consumer’s concerns about the environmental impact of the brand in question, and then reflecting those concerns in the progressive actions the company takes, is one that’s becoming more important by the day,” says Sean Pillot de Chenecey, the author of Influencers & Revolutionaries: How innovative trailblazers, trends & catalysts are transforming business

“Customer service professionals have a crucial part to play in their ‘brand ambassador’ roles. Consumers require - indeed demand - clear answers regarding the reality of an organisation’s environmental impact, and this corporate transparency needs to be evidenced; with regards to their manufacturing and supply chain activity but also through clear customer communications.”

Customer service professionals have a crucial part to play...consumers require - indeed demand - clear answers regarding the reality of an organisation’s environmental impact.

Climate change and customer experience

So how does a business go about this? The obvious first step is to acknowledge that if allaying your customers’ fears about your brand’s environmental footprint is a customer care issue, then employees in customer care need the requisite skills to deliver that message.     

The CCA reports that upskilling customer service employees to deal with more nuanced and complex customer queries is one of the biggest business trends of the 2020s. Part of that requirement is broader training on the topic of emotional intelligence. 68% of businesses leaders in a recent CCA survey said that agents will need to have high emotional intelligence to be successful, particularly in the case of vulnerable customers who require a more sensitive, human dialogue. Eco-anxieties may inevitably fall into this bracket.

The consequence of upskilling is that businesses are expected to pay agents more. Forrester forecasted that brands spent $8 billion more on customer service agents in 2020 compared with 2019. Businesses will have no choice but to bite the bullet if they are sincere about making positive environmental changes.

Another obvious approach is to consider environmental impact in customer experience design. Rebecca Pinn, a strategist for EPAM Continuum, highlights that CX is the perfect role to take wider business goals towards the environment and translate them into actions that the customer will feel.    

In an article, titled Sustainability is a customer experience issue, Pinn provides the obsolesce of electronic goods as a perfect example:

“Many companies offer trade-in and/or upgrade programs to keep smartphone customers loyal. However, similar trade-in and/or upgrade programs for larger electronics are not as ubiquitous and lack the same convenience. Trading in a smartphone is physically far easier than trading in a TV or computer. Since many of these programs require the customer to bring the item to the store or mail the items, they present a unique opportunity for companies to create services around removing and upgrading old, large electronics.

“Returning electronics to a retailer helps ensure products are disposed of properly. The EPA reports 41.1 million computers and 20 million TVs are trashed in the US every year. Only 13% of electronic waste is disposed of and recycled properly.”

Indeed, Dell is an example of a company that has pushed hard to help customers tackle the environmental impact of buying its products, creating the ‘Takeback program’ that ensures any outdated equipment is safely and conveniently recycled, providing discounts to repeat customers in the process.

This aspect of customer experience design is avidly promoted by author Joe MacLeod, who believes that ‘ends’ in experiences are given far less credence by CX leaders than they should, and are where the environmental impact of buying tangible products can be most severe.

“Ends must be elevated to be part of every consumer journey,” says MacLeod. “We need to create new meaning in established areas of the consumer journey. Equally, we need to build new areas of the journey that can be vehicles of emotions and environmental messages for the consumer.

“It is vital we increase attention on the ending in the consumer experience. As creators of products and services, we're empowered to change this bias. Make it part of a considered customer experience design.”

We need to build new areas of the customer journey that can be vehicles for environmental messages for the consumer.

Easing your customers' eco anxiety

Make no mistake, climate change is on the agenda of most brands across the globe, but fostering a culture that lives and breathes the environmental pledges a company makes is more of a challenge. But as Sean Pillot de Chenecey explains, reputation is on the line.

“Something that is undeniably agreed by those working in any capacity of brand management is that the differentiation between the vast majority of brands is now wafer-thin. A crucial issue, therefore, that people make when making brand-purchase decisions relates to what I term ‘reputation capital’ i.e. whether a brand is ‘trustworthy, reliable and competent’.

“In this regard, the issue of why we should trust the organisation behind that brand regarding their environmental credentials is critical. For companies that are seen, by their behaviour, to be meeting these challenges in an effective manner; then on purely consumer engagement and brand differentiation levels, this will enable them to achieve greater business success.”

For Heather Sarno, her eco-anxiety was eased by joining environmental pressure groups and using the birth of her son Jack as a fuel for making positive changes. However, her feeling about eco-anxiety is that, whilst it may be more recognised within medical fields, there’s not necessarily a medical solution; more a business one.

"A doctor wouldn't be able to control the companies responsible for 70% of the world's carbon emissions or put a stop to recreational flights,” she fittingly proclaims. 

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