Individuals vs. corporations: In defence of personal action

When chatting about sustainability, it feels almost inevitable that a discussion will break out regarding responsibility. Is it on the shoulders of individuals to make changes for the planet, or do we live our lives normally and let corporations or governments sort it all?

This kind of discussion will usually spring up over a person’s choice to go vegan, take the train instead of flying, or maybe, use a bamboo toothbrush. And I get it. In the face of global emissions, changing diet or toothbrushes seems laughably small and insignificant compared to BP’s annual emissions.

A conversation might go:

“Ahh they’ve got rubbish vegan options here”

“Oh so you’re vegan now are you?”

“Yeah, decided to take the plunge last month for Veganuary”

“Ohhh cool (deep sigh), what made you do it?”

“It was for environmental reasons, those bloomin’ David Attenborough documentaries got me”

“You know in the grand scheme of things it makes no difference right?”

“Yeah well I wanted to do my bit”

“Fair enough but I don’t think there’s any point in me changing my diet, what we need is for government to step in and do a meat tax or something… it’s on them not me

In truth, I’m sympathetic to both sides here. While wanting to do my bit and make sacrifices for the planet, I don’t want to make climate change all about me and my actions at the expense of losing the bigger picture.

On average, a person in the UK has an annual carbon footprint of 10 tonnes per year. Let’s say that with extreme effort, you manage to get your footprint down to 0 – you’re totally, 100% sustainable. That change would account for roughly 3% of one transatlantic flight. Nothing when you look at this.

So the “it’s the responsibility of the corporation” side of the argument wins right? If we really want to combat climate change, we need corporations to act. After all, 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions! .

And typically, at this point in the discussion, the pro-corporate action side is hailed as the victor and all responsibility is alleviated from the individual. Conversation over. They can eat their juicy steak with glee and contentment in the full knowledge that their lack of sacrifice is having as little difference as their friend’s self-denial.

… However, in my opinion, this is a premature end to the discussion and an incorrect conclusion.

Just because corporations make the most significant contributions to global emissions does not mean we as individuals bear no responsibility. After all, they don’t emit GHGs because it’s fun but because we buy it and make it profitable to do so.

Realistically then, what’s going to drive corporations to reduce their emissions and become environmentally friendly?

Personally, I think it’ll take no less than systemic cultural change on a global scale.


So how does that happen?

Well, that’s a tough question, but to try and tackle it we’re going to introduce an American guy named John Shook.

John Shook was the first American manager to be hired by Toyota. Upon being hired, he packed his bags and moved with his family to Japan, immersing himself in the organisation for a prolonged period with the sole purpose of understanding Toyota’s innovative culture.

What John observed was not a group of managers pestering their employees telling them what to think and how to act. But instead, a culture embodied by all employees, regardless of position, promoting experimentation, reflection, and ambition. John was amazed.

John subsequently quizzed the Toyota managers:

“How do you get your employees to think and act so differently, how did you fix the culture this way?”

What John later learnt totally changed his views on culture formation.

The Toyota staff didn’t “fix” the culture but modelled it.

John admitted he used to think culture came from telling people what to think and holding a few “vision” meetings. But instead, what the Toyota staff taught him, is that culture change happens with actions not words. You need leaders that will show rather than just tell people how to act.

Furthermore, once a workforces behaviour changes en masse, their shared values and culture soon follow.

This is how culture changes.


As a result of these findings, John developed the following model.

Johns’s simple model shows how, traditionally, he (and most people) used to think culture dictated our values and, subsequently, our behaviour. Which is somewhat true. However, recent research (combined with John’s own experience) suggests the opposite also happens. Our behaviour informs our values.

Consequently, if we want a more pro-environmental culture, we need to change people’s behaviour towards more pro-environmental action.

So how can we change people’s behaviour to favour the planet?

This is a tricky question but research has shown that people use less energy when they think their neighbours care more about the environment (regardless of whether they consider the environment a personal value of theirs). Consequently, typical, pro-environment signals like solar panels spread like wildfire amongst communities because individuals feel significant social pressure from their neighbours.

(Similar to how working behaviours spread in Toyota)

If you don’t believe me, look at how leaders and first followers create a movement in the following video. Think of the weird dancing as a symbol of pro-environmental behaviour – watch what happens!.

First Follower Leadership Lessons – Stabilized and Enlarged

This suggests most climate scientists with their communication strategies and in depth reports have perhaps got the cart before the horse.

Because changing thinking in order to change behaviour doesn’t work, instead what John found in Japan is we must first change behaviour to change thinking.

So we’ve conceded…

More so than individuals, corporations need to act to tackle climate change


Changing corporations requires systemic cultural changes, reflected in voting, consumer, and career preferences etc.

We’ve also learnt…

To change thinking we first must first change behaviour.


Pro-environmental changes spread like wildfire in communities.

So where does this leave us?

What does the world need?

Can we as individuals do anything at all?

I’d argue we can.

I believe to make corporations act we need more sustainability leaders.

(… or weird dancers, if you’ve seen the video above)

Sustainability leaders in our communities

Sustainability leaders in our neighbourhoods.

Sustainability leaders making personal sacrifices and decisions that demonstrate their commitment to looking after the planet

Not because these actions in themselves will save the world but because they signal to communities and neighbourhoods that the environment is important, and should be considered important by them too.

These leaders will initiate small scale local changes in their communities’ behaviour and culture. Just like the managers in Toyota, the weird dancers in the linked video, and the early neighbours who put up solar panels.

And as these behavioural changes go exponential, they inevitably influence wider community values trickling upwards and outwards slowly affecting culture at large – even reaching those big corporations (no hiding now!).

Therefore, perhaps the greatest individual impact of choosing to reduce our personal footprint is not in the directly saved emission but rather in the expression of our values signalled to our local networks.

So yes, the corporations are mostly to blame (the corporation side wins the debate). However, we still have a responsibility to act, not waiting idly, but taking the charge as leaders and first followers. Because our choice to participate in the sustainability revolution (or lay low and eat steak) has more impact than we realise.

… so go vegan, install solar panels, rewild your garden… (dance weirdly)

Because when your friend sitting opposite is eating that juicy steak, they cannot help but ask themselves…

“Damn, am I missing out? Maybe I should make some changes too”

Be a leader

Be a first follower

Change the culture.

Further reading:

Can Nudging Play a Role to Promote Environmental behaviour?

John Shook: Lean Transformation Model