Personal and Professional Management Development in English, in France.

Sustainability Discontinuity

By on Jul 8, 2009 in Tonyversity View | 0 comments

Ok, let me own up: I think the title is a bit ‘cute’… but there is a point here that arises from research on Sustainability  (Developpement Durable, as it is termed here) that I have undertaken over the last two or three years with my university students in France and Germany: they seem to have quite readily assimilated a reasonably sustainable approach to their personal consumption activities in their daily lives – but when it comes to thinking about Tourism consumption choices, they were, themselves, somewhat shocked to find that it is as if the synapses shut down almost 100% and the thought of sustainability applied to Tourism consumption choice just does not register.   Tourism appears to be cause to escape normality and to forget normal constraints and concerns altogether.

To me this seems particularly significant for the following reasons:-

  1. these are students in their early 20s. They were born at about the time of publication of the Brundtland Report : ‘Our Common Future’  / ‘Notre Avenir à Tous’ (World Commission on Environment and Development) published in 1987 and the subsequent ‘Rio Conference’ that launched sustainability upon the world political stage. Chernobyl, Ozone Layer depletion, global warming and the disappearance of the ice-shelf at the poles have been part of their immediate and present history. They have theoretically been living and learning in a world increasingly rife with the sustainability message running through all media since their birth: they are, surely, the most likely to be aware of the ‘message’ and to have ‘bought-in’ to it….. yet when it comes to Tourism, there is a surprising disconnection: sustainability almost doesn’t figure at all (‘though it does feature significantly in other aspects of daily life).
  2. the Tourism industry seems to be waiting (not entirely unreasonably) for Tourism demand to shift significantly in the direction of Sustainable Tourism products and services.  After all, what industry or corporation would make an investment in something that its market did not seem to be actively demanding?  Some do target small niches admittedly, and successfully so, but commercial history is littered with organisations that dive over the ‘leading edge’ and find themselves on what is often termed ‘the bleeding edge’.  For example, Click Mango was a website with the right idea (everything natural, eco and bio) but just a little before it’s time – when the early online eCommerce ‘bubble’ burst, investors pulled out in the light of past losses just at the point that Mango was close to break-even and heading in the direction of solid profit.  The industry is not, by and large, addressing sustainability in the mass market because the mass tourist still appears to be broadly happy with the existing ‘fare’ on offer.   If my students are anything to go by, this produces a big, fat ‘Catch 22′ situation: consumers are not automatically thinking of sustainability when it comes to Tourism and they are not by and large being presented with sustainable alternatives in the marketplace for that very same reason. Result: nothing changes.

Presently most attention to Sustainability in Tourism is aimed at new products and services that are green and ‘eco-friendly’ which can be designed from the ground up.  In most cases these are responses to a niche  lying beyond the ‘mass’ where premium prices are possible in the face of a small but lucrative market comprised of the sensitive consumer who appreciates ‘ethical value’ and is prepared to pay for it.   Here in Alsace the Tourism Authorities are concentrating on branding ‘Green Tourim’ largely because the region itself is very green and rural – this promotion being based upon selling rural products and services rather than necessarily sustainable ones.  The authorities at regional level in Alsace are, however, funding an ‘Association’ (Association de Prospective Rhénane) whose mission is (inter alia) to try to achieve a greater engagement with sustainability on the part of  public authorities, the Tourism sector and educational institutions. I fear, however, that it is in danger of running before it can walk as it appears to be leaping directly into creating ‘networks’ and setting up ‘leadership’ before it really understands the nature of the problem and this ‘discontinuity’, the key to the unraveling of which, to my mind, lies in the work of Everett Rogers whose seminal work on ‘The Diffusion and Adoption of Innovations’ has much to commend it in terms of the analysis of the fundamental problem.   Below I develop Rogers’ theory and attempt to track the processes involved in the diffusion and adoption of  message, in this case the exhortation to buy Audi, but I might equally have put:  to consume sustainable tourism products and services….

Diffusion and Adoption Processes and Considerations

Les Processus de l’Adoption et de la Diffusion et les Considérations Associés

Processus Elément Illustration Considérations

DIFFUSION

Message Buy our car Niveau de l’education

Influence des pairs

Budget

Encodage Vorsprung D… T…
Séléction des médias TV
Transmission 19.30  ITV
Récéption 20% of target Market
Decodage 10% of target Market

ADOPTION

Comparative Advantage

  • Efficiency
  • Economy
  • Effectiveness
  • Equity

Consistency

Complexity

Compatibility

Communicability

Comprehension Unclear to 50% (5%)
Evaluation Good Engineering
Impression Yes
Préférence Better than my Ford
Decision Consider next time
Accessibilité **** Seek
Achat Buy
Réflexion As good as I hoped
Confirmation Made good decision
Attachement I’m an Audi guy
Soutien You should…
Relationship I buy Audi products

**** Beaucoup reste caché ici.  Si on a pris une décision difficile et possiblement coûteuse en faveur de quelquechose, (et ça après beaucoup de l’effort et de l’exhortation) ça aurait être contre-productive en extrême s’il manque la prochaine étape naturelle par raison de manque de conseil, infos sur les vendeurs etc

For Diffusion and Adoption, see Rogers, E.  The Diffusion of Innovations.

The point is that the process is long and at each and every stage the message can get lost along the way.   Research with my students seems to suggest that although they have largely gone through the process in terms of sustainability in their daily lives and have in some cases become sustainability evangelists, diffusion and adoption of Sustainable Tourism is a different process: because one is sustainable in daily life does not (necessarily) mean one has also heard the message of Sustainable Tourism and bought into it.  What we need to know is exactly where the ‘inhibitors’ are in the process – both for consumers and suppliers, then to systematically ‘attack’ them considering a twin-pronged approach combining to following ‘tools’:

  1. ‘carrots’: incentives and persuaders to ‘do the right thing’.  This may involve information, education, exhortation, promotion, peer pressure, leadership, financial incentives etc
  2. ‘sticks’: regulation and legislation and threats thereof involving penalties that ‘hurt’ or cost’… perhaps even taxing the things we do not want suppliers to supply and consumers to consume because all parties understand and habitually respond to the price mechanism.

In the absence of such analysis & evaluation and a deliberate and systematic response thereto, I don’t see APR-style, ‘instant fixes’ actually working as they do not appear to me to be built upon a rational analysis of the outcomes, identification of the inhibitors/log-jams and consideration of the various strategic options to address them.  I do think that an agency like APR may well be necessary to draw the threads together, but it needs to start with a clear understanding of the problem, and I fear this may well be missing presently.

My students’ own solutions:

  1. consumer side. This can best be paraphrased as: ‘We won’t like it… but frankly the only way to get us to change is to force us.  Just making sustainable alternatives will NOT be enough – we will have to be prised out of our current consumption ‘status quo’ and hitting us where it hurts: in the pocket, is the only way, ultimately: the non-sustainable option will have to be made financially unattractive relative to the sustainable.’ A ‘classic’ illustration of  just how intractable the problem is was provided by Mélanie from the Tourism and Hospitality Management Degree Programme in Colmar who suggested that even clear, economic signals may not be enough. She brought up the issue of long-life, low-wattage, low-CO2 discharge lights:  ‘We all know they last eight times longer, do less damage to the environment, offer lower running costs and the price is only three times as much as conventional lightbulbs…. but have we all installed them….?  No.   It won’t be until the government actually phases out the conventional alternative that we will all finally ‘do the right thing’ and switch.’ This seems to be a strong case for both ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’….  It also suggests that a credible alternative needs to be in place with a good economic justification PLUS a potentially high degree of government complicity and willingness to ‘wield the big stick’.
  2. Supply side. Once again students were adamant that unless sustainability was not an option (i.e. it was provided exclusively or ‘wholesale’ everywhere => it becomes the ‘only game in town’) then consumers would be reluctant to change their current mode of choice/consumption activity.  Again they considered both carrots and sticks to represent an essential combination: government and national/regional Tourism bodies to lay down sustainability standards and inform, educate, advise, persuade and even offer inducements & incentives to move the supply side through ‘diffusion’ and well into ‘adoption’.  They felt that critical to this would be the mid stage of adoption where a supplier has decided to go for sustainability and then is faced with the inevitable question: ‘how, exactly do I do it?’.  Their sensible solution (which I am certain will ultimately prove to be critical and indispensable if we are ever going to get the mass industry involved and engaged) is that of a ‘One-Stop-Shop’ providing access to expertise, sustainability audit services, approved and registered sustainable product and services suppliers, mentors and direct and easy access to all the various forms of state financial assistance.  This ‘carrot’, students feared, may not be enough unless the state is prepared to apply ‘sticks’, which in this case might be minimum standards of compliance within a time-frame and financial penalty thereafter.

I accept that the state may or may not wish to force the hand of its industry or hit the pocket of its voters, but to address the inhibitors in the Tourism system which seem to be forever militating against take up of Sustainable Tourism, this is exactly what the most seasoned and sustainability-savvy consumers (and tomorrow’s Tourism Managers) feel is a necessity rather than an option.

I, for one, believe them to be right……

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