Carrots work better than sticks



“We need to promote simple actions on a large scale,” reads South Africa’s National Framework for Sustainable Development. Taking resource use efficiency as one of its key principles, this 2008 document outlines key measures needed in order to achieve change that enhances human wellbeing, but more than a decade later, there’s much left to be desired in the implementation of these plans. What’s standing between ideas and execution, and how can stakeholders be incentivised to take urgently necessary action?

South Africa’s natural conditions are ripe for the successful implementation of renewal energy sources: our weather patterns are well-suited to both wind- and solar-powered energy. In a country in which the conventional power supply is expensive and consistently unreliable, it seems to be something of a no-brainer for businesses and individuals to turn to alternative sources of energy.

Incentivisation comes in to make the effort and spend more immediately rewarding — or, in the cases of those who cannot afford the necessary machinery to generate and harness energy, simply to enable it. If legislation imposing fines for dumping rubbish or littering is the rod, then incentives are the carrot that should make environmentally friendly measures irresistibly appealing to us. The two need to work together to make forward progress a more appealing prospect than moving backwards or standing still.

At the citizen level, we’ve long witnessed the powerful incentive of repaid deposits for glass bottles, and perhaps many many members of the public don’t fully understand how much good informal scrap collectors do for the aesthetics and wellbeing of urban areas by exchanging found scraps of plastic and paper for monetary reward. While these collectors face numerous challenges and dangers in transporting waste, the money earned from redemption at organisations like The Reclamation Group sustain, in many cases, their livelihoods. These are individuals with a far greater need for small gains than the bosses of corporates or even SMMEs, but all should approach sustainability measures with the same fervour — our long-term livelihood in fact depends on it.

While the National Framework for Sustainable Development’s “simple actions on a large scale” were intended to be measures implemented by organisations, there has long been a focus on consumer behaviour: the simple action of eschewing plastic straws, on a large scale, to the point that these straws are being removed and replaced in restaurants and takeaways worldwide, is one key example of a change that began at consumer level and went on to impact corporate behaviour.

But calling on individuals to do better in their daily lives does not create the urgent and drastic changes needed to avert climate crisis. While it’s true that we all should recycle and strive to reduce our single plastic use – hopefully influencing retailers, through our consumer behaviour, to do the same in the long term – it’s also necessary for the “simple actions” to happen at a higher level, and for the “large scale” part of the equation to be implemented sooner rather than later.

A significant barrier to implementation is awareness, and in turn access. Incentivisation for corporates and large organisations has taken many forms: from tax cuts and budgetary incentives for those following specific guidelines and attaining designated goals, to encouraging competition among service providers in relevant fields such as waste management and renewable energy.

While incentives exist for potentially far-reaching measures in such sectors as energy, they seem to be largely unknown to those that they could positively impact: for instance, Section 12B of SA’s Income Tax Act (Act 58 of 1996) provides for an allowance to implement renewable energy machinery, but few businesses seem to be aware of this cost-effective opportunity. While it seems clear that government has work to do in terms of publicising these opportunities for economic relief and long-term benefits to environment and company alike, it’s in the interests of business owners and individuals to do their research in the short term and find out what funding or tax break benefits might exist for them.

For decades, marketing campaigns have tried to encourage and cajole individuals into becoming more environmentally-conscious citizens, using messages of varying complexity — from images of a sad planet Earth on recycle bins to ensuring that primary school children learn to equate the term “litterbug” with all the malice of far more serious accusations. Some of this has been paying off, given that the younger generation is leading the charge against climate change, but it’s also worth considering that we’re simple creatures at heart: a monetary incentive may be just as likely to change behaviour as one of a sentimental nature. Why not both? When people are rewarded for actions that also save the world, everybody wins. 

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Cayleigh Bright
Cayleigh Bright
Journalist, author, copywriter. Full-time freelance.

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