Canadians need lesson on sustainability

By Doug Watt | June 16, 2009 | Last updated on June 16, 2009
3 min read

A new survey suggests that most Canadians strongly support the concept of sustainability, even though they don’t always know what it means. The Hoggan & Associates 2009 study on Canadians’ attitudes toward sustainability was released at the Canadian Responsible Investment Conference in Winnipeg.

Hoggan & Associates vice-president Nancy McHarg, who presented the study’s initial findings, said that while 56% of Canadians said they were familiar with the concept of sustainability, only three in 10 were able to supply an accurate definition. At the same time, 50% identified themselves as environmentalists. “There’s still a lot of work to do in terms of understanding,” McHarg admits.

However, once the concept was explained, 79% said they believed sustainability should be a top priority for the government. In fact, despite the current shaky economic climate, two-thirds felt the government should work on fixing the economy and the environment concurrently. “They shouldn’t forsake one for the other,” McHarg added. Still, when asked to name the issues most important to them, the government chose the economy first, followed by healthcare, and then the environment third.

For advisors, McHarg says there are opportunities in the “choir” — those 70% of Canadians who believe sustainability is a priority but are not familiar with the underlying issues. “Canadians believe a sustainable approach to business development is the way of the future,” she said, noting that renewable energy was a common theme for those who provided more specific information.

And there are other signs that environmental, social and governance factors are creeping into the mainstream. Nearly 60% of those surveyed said pension fund managers should reflect environmental and social factors when making investment decisions, 71% believe companies that are socially responsible are more likely to be profitable over the long term, and 50% said they would seek out socially responsible companies when investing. McHarg warned of the complexities around investment-related and sustainability language, suggesting that advisors brush up on their communication skills.

The survey also indicates that:

• 88% of Canadians believe companies that pollute should be punished severely; • 79% believe in stricter laws to protect the environment; • 76% believe that the current economic crisis is a result of excess, dysfunction and wastefulness; and • 77% believe the current crisis presents a good time to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

McHarg identified a number of “barriers to action” for those promoting sustainability, including lack of information and general mistrust. “Canadians don’t have the confidence that businesses and governments are going to make a difference, and they don’t want to make the sacrifice alone.”

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    Only a small percentage of Canadians feel businesses are truly committed to sustainability; the vast majority (83%) believe companies’ sustainability claims were more of a public relations exercise. “Businesses need to prove their integrity,” she said. “This atmosphere of mistrust should not be underestimated. Canadians do have a sense of hope, but they need to be convinced; they want to believe in core sustainability but they don’t trust business and governments to do the right thing. We still have a lot of work to do.”

    Hoggan & Associates surveyed 4,300 Canadians earlier this year for the sustainability survey. More detailed results will be released in the fall.

    Doug Watt is an Ottawa-based writer and editor and co-founder of SRI Monitor, a blog on socially responsible investing.


    Doug Watt