Renewable energy innovation isn’t just good for the climate — it’s also good for the economy

Written by Deborah de Lange, Toronto Metropolitan University. Originally published in The Conversation.

Many have argued the energy industry needs to change to reduce carbon emissions, but one concern that remains is the consequence this will have on economic prosperity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

As the climate crisis escalates, there are urgent and difficult choices that need to be made to drastically reduce our carbon emissions before more irreparable damage is done.

Many have argued the energy industry needs to change to reduce carbon emissions, but one concern that remains is the consequence this will have on economic prosperity.

Discussions vary across interest groups. Do we need to outright replace the fossil fuel industry with the renewable energy industry as soon as possible? Should we slowly phase out fossil fuels while making clean renewable replacements? Or, should we continue with a powerful fossil fuel industry while separately growing a renewable industry in parallel?

How these different choices could impact our economies seems unclear, and it is this lack of clarity that opens up the field for frustrating discussions. At the recent COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, the conference president shockingly said that there is “no science” behind any decision to phase-out fossil fuels from our energy systems — a statement which he later claimed was “misinterpreted.”

My recent research examines energy industry restructuring options for a green transition to renewable energy from an economic perspective.

Although economic analysis is helpful, it is not sufficient on its own for making these important decisions. So, my research also draws on sustainability which involves considering the conditions faced by future generations, and a concept known as equifinality reminding us to keep our minds open to many possible approaches that may satisfy the same objectives.

Renewable energy innovation and GDP

My research indicates that renewable energy innovation contributes to higher GDP. Contrary to some commonly held beliefs, a clean transition is, and has been for at least a decade, good for the economy — even in earlier stages of its development.

My findings also suggest that government and industry support for the fossil fuel industry negatively affects a country’s renewable energy innovation. The two industries are not compatible.

When the fossil fuel industry invests in itself, it also appears to improve GDP, which creates confusion about the best way to ensure economic prosperity while transitioning to clean energy.

A south Asian man wearing glasses in a white kufiyah bangs a small gavel on a table with the COP logo printed on the front. A name plate in front of him says COP PRESIDENT.
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber bangs the gavel during a session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, on Dec. 11, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)











But this investment, often made through lobbying, only prolongs the existence of the fossil fuel industry by keeping renewable energy competition out. This creates a false dichotomy between reducing emissions and improving GDP when, in fact, clean innovation can achieve both simultaneously.

My research indicates that clean innovation makes a stronger economy and reduces emissions. If we want to reinforce that dual progress, rather than accepting trade-offs, then we have to stop supporting the fossil fuel industry which aims to slow it down.

Helping renewable energy thrive

Economically speaking, the fossil fuel industry is negatively impacting consumer welfare by maintaining higher-than-necessary prices due to limited competition. This, in turn, bumps up GDP through inflated profits, having subsidised an already dominant polluting industry, reducing clean innovation and delaying cleaner progress — obviously not the way to grow a healthy economy.

In fact, GDP is not a standard of living measure or a measure of innovative competitiveness. To address inflation and the cost of living crisis, we should be promoting more competition across industries. This is a more productive type of capitalism that brings wider benefits to all of us, including more innovation, lower prices, and better products for domestic and export markets.

Government subsidies that boost the fossil fuel industry hinder consumer welfare and the transition to clean energy. Some examples include subsidies to fund more carbon capture and storage technology and the use of fossil energy in hydrogen storage systems.

Instead of funding these backward subsidies, governments should implement pollution taxes while also supporting renewable energy innovation.

My research demonstrates that pollution taxes work well with clean innovation capabilities. Supporting research and innovation in renewable energy and using a carbon tax as a tool can boost the economic benefits of transitioning to clean energy.

The findings of my work suggest that a robust economy is related to industry restructuring so that renewable energy innovation can thrive. Fostering novel scientific discoveries in clean energy innovation should be prioritized while reducing non-competitive industry formations and organizations, such as fossil fuel oligopolies and industry associations.

Making decisions with the future in mind

Increasing public awareness and understanding of fossil fuel industry games is a way to accelerate change. It’s important to recognize that industries at different life cycle stages contribute to the economy in different ways.

A newer rising industry with determined entrepreneurs, like that of renewable energy, invests in innovation to create value. On the other hand, a declining industry plays end-game strategies, like engaging in self-promotional activities, to maintain their existing position and create barriers to new industry entries.

Smoke billowing out of a factory chimney
Smoke rises from a chimney at a factory in Heiligengrabe, Germany, in October 2021. The fossil fuel and renewable energy industries are not compatible with one another. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)











However, consumer welfare increases with competition, not collusion. Economic analysis is not sufficient on its own for decision-making in this area because positive economic outcomes can be generated by different kinds of strategies supporting an industry’s life cycle goals.

Government policy decisions should be made based on economic analyses alongside broader sustainability criteria. Ignoring the equifinality argument and reverting to discussions about replacing coal with gas as a bridge only ensures fossil fuels remain in use for at least another generation of infrastructure.

Communities should apply sustainability and equifinality lenses to decision-making, understanding that there are many possible means to an end. For example, if a community has specific concerns about one type of renewable energy system, they should explore other alternative clean energy options instead of defaulting to fossil fuels.

An educated public should reject simplistic and single-sided arguments and understand there are usually more nuanced solutions to problems supported by evidence-based analysis. By embracing a more holistic approach, we can develop more sustainable societies by opening up renewable energy possibilities.


Use of lockdowns in Canadian prisons could amount to torture

Written by Jessica Evans, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Linda Mussell, University of Canterbury. Originally published in The Conversation. 

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, in Dartmouth, N.S. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court recently ruled that the use of lockdowns to address staff shortages at provincial jails is unlawful. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Dembeck)

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia recently ruled in a pair of decisions that it is unlawful to lock down imprisoned people due to staff shortages. Lockdowns are a practice of restrictive confinement that has become increasingly common. This is despite the fact that, under the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules, those lockdowns meet the criteria for torture.

In November 2023, the East Coast Prison Justice Society raised alarm over institutional lockdowns at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth. One of the prisoners the society spoke with said, “things are worse than they have ever been.”

Lockdowns are common not just in Nova Scotia, but across Canada. Perhaps most notoriously, the Toronto South Detention Centre has been subject to numerous investigations surrounding its abuse of restrictive confinement.

Recent data collected by Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General further demonstrates the extent of the problem in provincial institutions (no data is available on Nova Scotia). Between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, 15,929 individuals, out of a total of 29,693 people in custody, spent at least one day in a unit that was regularly locked down for 17 hours or more per day. These trends are relatively stable and consistent across provinces.

The East Coast Prison Justice Society said they were increasingly concerned by the impact these conditions have on the physical and mental health and well-being of prisoners. Given the ongoing problem of lockdowns across prisons in Canada, what is the significance of the court’s rulings, and do they go far enough?

Loss of liberty and habeas corpus

The pair of rulings from the Nova Scotia Supreme Court found that the routine use of institutional lockdowns in the province’s jails to address staffing shortages is unlawful.

Two habeas corpus petitions were filed by Durrell Diggs and Ryan Wilband, both low-risk prisoners, who were subjected to cell confinement for 51 and 29 days respectively, often with no time out of their cells. These petitions argued the use of lockdowns was a violation of their Charter rights.

The pair of rulings from the Nova Scotia Supreme Court found that the routine use of institutional lockdowns in the province’s jails to address staffing shortages is unlawful.

Two habeas corpus petitions were filed by Durrell Diggs and Ryan Wilband, both low-risk prisoners, who were subjected to cell confinement for 51 and 29 days respectively, often with no time out of their cells. These petitions argued the use of lockdowns was a violation of their Charter rights.

Prison cells along a corridor.
Cells at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S. on May 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan.

In Diggs’s case the court ruled: “It is not a ‘privilege’ to be out of one’s cell,” it is something imprisoned people are entitled to. The court ruled that the near-daily decision to put the jail on partial or total lockdown is unlawful and unreasonable.

The Mandela Rules state that being held in confinement for more than 15 days without at least four hours per day out of cell, two of which must include meaningful human contact, is prolonged solitary confinement and constitutes torture.

Nova Scotia’s Correctional regulations state prisoners are entitled to fresh air for a minimum of just 30 minutes every day, which falls below the Mandela Rules threshold. According to the recent court ruling, Wilband likely received that minimum on only five occasions over 28 days.

Another man imprisoned at the facility told researchers:

“We are locked down every second day because of staff shortages. They let us out of cells in groups, sometimes two or three, sometimes eight. One time the whole range at once was let out, but not usually. Some days no one gets out of their cell at all. The guards say how many people will be let out, but it is up to the prisoners as to who it is who gets out. The younger weaker guys do not even ask to get out because they know they will get beaten up if they take a spot from someone higher in the pecking order.”

Impacts of lockdowns

Research finds these kinds of lockdowns can have severe impacts on an inmate’s mental and physical health and well-being. Lockdowns disrupt communication with lawyers, contact with loved ones, access to programs, spiritual and cultural practice, hygiene and medical treatment. Inadequate time out of their cell is associated with worse mental health and higher suicide risk.

In another recent decision, Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court stated:

“Confining persons in custody — many of whom may have pre-existing mental health issues — to their cells for exorbitant periods of time does nothing to assist and support their rehabilitation…Even a person with robust mental health would find it challenging to be regularly confined to a cell, often for more than 20 hours per day, with little notice and no ability to earn more time out. This practice is dehumanizing, and it is setting these individuals up to fail. They deserve better.”

Why this ruling is important

Lockdowns are not new, although reliance on lockdowns in response to institutional issues including staffing and maintenance problems, has increased substantially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our research we examine these practices and caution that without adequate oversight, they are likely to become a new normal.

Importantly, our research finds that lockdowns often replicate the torturous conditions of solitary confinement, a practice which was ended federally through Bill C-83, an amendment to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which received royal assent in 2019.

The recent Nova Scotia rulings are significant in that they state operational problems at the institutional level are not sufficient to justify lockdowns. Because a majority of lockdowns are caused by institutional operational issues, not prisoners’ behaviour, lockdowns constitute a “pain of imprisonment” which exceeds the conditions and objectives of custodial sentences.

Lockdowns compound the pains associated with imprisonment, including poor mental and physical health, which impacts community release, reintegration and recidivism.

More lockdowns mean people are subject to practices that amount to torture. Almost 80 per cent of the provincial prisoner population in Nova Scotia are in jail awaiting trial, presumed innocent of charges and denied pre-trial release for reasons as simple as a lack of community housing and other supports.


Many of the recommendations in the court’s ruling are about ensuring adequate staffing to avoid lockdowns. However, this does not address other operational issues that can trigger lockdowns. An alternative is decreasing prison numbers rather than increasing prison staff, and abolishing solitary confinement altogether.

In 2020, prison numbers were significantly decreased in Nova Scotia. In total, over 40 per cent of the provincially incarcerated population was released.

The judiciary, corrections, crown and defense counsels, along with community organizations, collaborated to cut provincial prison numbers. Some imprisoned people went to new supported community residency options, which proved successful even for people with the most complex needs.

Beyond ending these lockdowns, a whole-of-government approach must be taken to foster and sustain community-based alternatives to pre-trial detention and to support other initiatives preventive of imprisonment.

The Conversation

Schools have a long way to go to offer equitable learning opportunities, especially in French immersion

Written by Diana Burchell, University of Toronto, Becky Xi Chen, University of Toronto, Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, Dalhousie University, and Roksana Dobrin-De Grace, Toronto Metropolitan University. Originally published in The Conversation.

In a research study on the accessibility of French immersion, one parent was told she faced a three-year wait to access reading supports for her child. (Andrew Ebrahim/Unsplash)

The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read report, published last February, called for changes in the province’s educational system. The commission found shortcomings in how schools support students with special education needs.

We found similar trends in our interview-based study on the accessibility of French immersion for students with special education needs from low-income communities in Toronto. We interviewed eight mothers with diverse socio-economic status, home language and immigration backgrounds on their experiences with the French immersion program.

According to the Right to Read report’s recommendations, children need accessible, effective learning assessments, as well as evidence-based interventions that occur in a timely manner.

These interventions include explicit, systematic programs that focus on phonics (teaching the relationships between letters and the sounds of spoken language) and decoding (applying knowledge of letter-sound relationships to written words, or “sounding out”)metalinguistic awareness (a larger awareness of language, including an ability to reflect on it) and other skills that support reading accuracy and fluency).

Research has highlighted difficulties accessing support for students with special education needs in French immersion programs. As we also heard in our study, parents of children with students with special education needs from low-income communities in Toronto faced barriers accessing resources for their children.

A school building.
A report published by the TDSB found students without special needs represent 90 per cent of students in French immersion and 78 per cent of students in the board overall. (Shutterstock)

Marginalized students underrepresented

French immersion programs have become increasingly popular across Canada, since students who learn both English and French in school may benefit from increased intercultural awareness, easier travel throughout Canada, better access to bilingual jobs as well as potential developmental and social benefits.

There is a high demand for French immersion in Canada, and the program is often perceived as an elitist system.

In the Toronto District School board (TDSB) French immersion report released in 2019, marginalized students are underrepresented in its immersion programs. For example, the report — based on registration and census information — noted that in grades 7-8:

  • 49 per cent of students identify as white in French immersion and 30 per cent in the board overall;
  • students without special needs represent 90 per cent of students in French immersion and 78 per cent of students in the board overall;
  • Students whose family income is $100,000 and over represent 66 per cent of students in French immersion and 47 per cent of students in the board overall;
  • Children from families who speak English at home represent 63 per cent of French immersion classes and 35 per cent of the board overall.

Reading struggles

Emily (not her real name) is one of the mothers who participated in our study. She has seen the high cost of disability in our school systems. With her permission, we have shared her story below to illustrate her family’s experience in a French immersion program.

Emily enrolled all of her three children in a French immersion program. Emily’s eldest child excelled in immersion, and continued to study French into university. However, Emily’s two youngest were struggling to read in French. The teachers assured her that her children would catch up in time and there was no need to worry.

Shockingly for Emily, once her middle child reached Grade 3, she was suddenly informed that her child was reading at a kindergarten level.

However, the wait to be assessed was approximately three years — meaning this child might be in Grade 6 before they received any formal assessment and intervention support.

At the suggestion of the school’s administration, Emily agreed to pay $3,500 for an external evaluation. She said about the experience:

“I’ll never forget it, having that SST (school support team) meeting. I’m in front of the psychologist and all these different people and I literally lost control. The head of special education, she said, ‘It’s okay.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not crying because my daughter has a learning disability. I’ve come to terms with that.’ I said, ‘I’m crying because I had to pay $3,500 dollars …’… How many kids are falling through the cracks?’ That was very disconcerting for me. I was heartbroken.”

A hand writing on French homework.
Schools have a long way to go to offer equitable learning opportunities for all students. (Shutterstock)

Insufficient special education support

Even after spending an exorbitant amount of money, Emily found out the hard way that there wasn’t sufficient special education support in French immersion for her child. She ended up removing her middle child from the immersion program the next year. Emily’s middle child did get the support she needed in the English program.

This is just one example of the stories we heard in our research study on the accessibility of French immersion.

Emily’s question stayed with us throughout our work: How many students are falling through the cracks?

The truth is, we don’t really know. Based on the attrition rates in French immersion from the TDSB, it must be high. According to a 2019 report published by the TDSB, from the early French immersion cohort where students start in senior kindergarten, approximately 70 per cent of the students have left the program by Grade 9.

Need for early intervention

In our study, one parent was told that her child couldn’t be assessed until Grade 3, which contradicts evidence-based best practices that call for early assessment and intervention.

Parents also said they often feel pressure to pay for expensive tutors, French summer camps and other language immersion opportunities so their children don’t fall behind.

They reported spending a lot of time supporting their children’s studies despite not speaking the language of instruction, and this ends up becoming an emotional and financial burden.

Ensuring changes are implemented equitably

Following the Right to Read inquiry, the Government of Ontario committed to sweeping change such as mandating early literacy screening. We have also seen a huge amount of professional learning for teachers. Ensuring that positive change yielded by these approaches are effective in French immersion programs is critical.

We know that individual resilience and community support networks aren’t enough to combat systemic barriers.

We still have a long way to go if we want our school system to be an equitable learning opportunity for all students — particularly in immersion.

Why universities warrant public investment: Preparing students for living together well

Written by Jennifer S Simpson, Toronto Metropolitan University. Originally published in The Conversation. 

The Conversation
University funding quickly raises the question of value: what is it that universities offer that warrants public investment? (Shutterstock)

recent report noting that funding for Ontario’s universities is “low when compared with support in other provinces” points to underfunding as a serious problem in the province’s post-secondary sector.

Funding quickly raises the question of value: what is it that universities offer that warrants public investment?

Much of my own research has posited that universities have a responsibility to contribute to the public good and to equity.

Universities’ obligations to public life

Academic research and reports authored by educationalnot-for-profit and governmental organizations confirm that universities are integral to democratic societies.

The question of the purposes of universities is both long-standing and one that has elicited many perspectives. Recent global attention to both systemic forms of injustice and increasingly urgent climate crises underscore the complexity of considering universities’ obligations to public life.

I contend that the central contribution of post-secondary institutions, related to graduate and undergraduate education, is to prepare students to attend to the practices of living together well — with the capacities to recognize inequity and advance equity, in field-specific settings and a range of communities.

Students seen in a courtyard, one on a bench and some walking.
Attention to both systemic forms of injustice and increasingly urgent climate crises underscore the complexity of considering universities’ obligations to public life. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Contested conversation about purpose

While many faculty members might agree with the idea that a university education will ideally respond to professional, intellectual and public and equity-related priorities, the conversation can quickly become contested.

Indeed, implementation of this idea does present challenges. And yet — graduates will enter a world in which systemic forms of inequity are present in a variety of settings and sectors. The likelihood of a university graduate encountering inequity in their chosen profession or field is less a question of if than when and how.

Likewise, the view that universities can educate students who can contribute to a more equitable future offers a constructive and bold response to the question of what a university education is for.

Universities can and do prepare graduates to contribute to their professions, to economic interests, and to the public good. The economic, civic and intellectual ends of a university education do not need to be placed in opposition to one another, or set up as binary or discreet.

The ends of a university education

Increasingly, universities and accreditation bodies alike are affirming the multiple and overlapping interests a university degree supports, including the importance of curricular attention to diversity and equity.

One obvious concrete end of a university education is the intellectual endeavour, which typically includes the acquisition of knowledge and the life of the mind.

Civic ends constitute a second purpose of a university education: ideally, students will be able to consider how a degree prepares them to think and act as citizens and participate in key public decisions.

Those in industry, provincial and federal governments, and the post-secondary sector stress the importance of preparing students for the labour market and for employment.

Studies have demonstrated that students, whether in professional disciplines (such as nursing or engineering) or those not governed by accreditation bodies (like philosophy or film) will make significant economic and civic contributions, whether in the public sector or other industries.

Students protesting at Toronto Metropolitan University on April 26,2023.
A university education strengthens a student’s knowledge base in a chosen field and informs how graduates will use that knowledge for civic and economic ends. Students at Toronto Metropolitan University on April 26, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

All education is consequential

Directly asserting that universities have an obligation to contribute to the practices of living together well with an eye toward equity can quickly raise objections from within and outside of higher education.

There are many who are most comfortable with the belief that universities are neutral institutions and that academic programs ought to maintain this neutrality via a clear and often specific reliance on rational, discipline-specific thought or methods. In fact, in providing content in academic programs and specific courses, faculty members endorse a way of seeing the world.

Faculty members teach in ways that, implicitly or explicitly and intentionally or not, variously endorse the status quo and existing forms of injustice, or call attention to the need for equity and provide an education that speaks to this need.

Orienting students toward what is possible

Time in the classroom and in conversation with faculty members and other students will shape habits, inform priorities and orient students toward what is possible and desirable.

Graduates’ choices and actions will nearly always have a bearing on how people live. Whether in sociology or biology or mathematics, courses will orient students in how to understand the world in which they live, and also in regard to what their responsibilities are to that world in the context of their chosen fields.

We can do so in ways that underscore the hallmarks of intellectual engagement: curiosity, openness to various perspectives, attention to context, and listening to those with whom we disagree.

The practices of living together well

Universities are places for deliberation, inquiry, curiosity and investigation. In teaching students, university faculty have the privilege of asking why, how and what for in regard to numerous settings and situations, and the pleasure of bringing knowledge and different perspectives to bear on how classroom learning affects our society.

We live in a world in which systemic forms of inequity persist. In designing courses and academic programs, faculty have an opportunity to engage students with field-specific knowledge and to attend to the practical and ethical uses of that knowledge once students graduate.

For all these reasons, a university education at its best will be attentive to the public good and to equity, and to civic, intellectual and employment ends.

The Sunnylands Statement sets a positive signal: World leaders gathered for COP28 must build off of it

The Conversation
Written by Sibo Chen, Toronto Metropolitan University. Image credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP. Originally published in The Conversation. 

U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping walk in the gardens at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif. on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.

In a politically turbulent world, it is rare to witness major global actors set aside their disagreements to address the existential threats posed by climate change. On Nov. 14, the United States and China did just this by issuing the Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis.

Issued prior to the pivotal Biden-Xi meeting on Nov. 15 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, the statement not only establishes a spirit of co-operation but also sustains the progress made in recent climate dialogues between the world’s two largest greenhouse gases (GHG) emitters.

Climate organizations and analysts have welcomed the statement. China Dialoguestated that it shows that even with their complex relationship, both nations are committed to prioritizing climate issues. While the Asia Society Policy Institute characterized the bilateral alignment of the statement as an “insurance” to the ongoing 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28).

As a scholar closely monitoring the global implications of China’s climate policy, the statement is particularly intriguing for how it describes China’s approach to energy transition. China’s determination to “ramp up renewable energy with the goal of displacing fossil fuels” should be taken seriously by Canadian, and global, policymakers when planning energy futures.

Accelerating renewable energy transition

There are two significant developments within the statement which are worth highlighting. The first is China’s commitment to setting comprehensive climate targets by 2035 that encompass all greenhouse gases (GHG) and the second is its unprecedented consideration of absolute emission reductions in its (primarily coal-fuelled) power sector within this decade.

Such policy language is crucial for figuring out China’s future energy import prospects.

Smoke stacks seen down a busy road with cars and power poles.
Guohua Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in Hebei province, China. Photo credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan.

The Sunnylands Statement indicates that the U.S. and China recognize climate change mitigation as one of the limited domains in which they appear willing to cultivate stability in their bilateral relations. This isn’t entirely surprising, given the rapid transition towards renewable energy sources that both countries have undertaken. This trend gained momentum during the pandemic and is anticipated to continue as their economic activities recover, and become more dependent upon renewable energy.

This has been confirmed by BloombergNEF’s 2023 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which reported that in 2022, U.S. energy transition investments rose 11 per cent year-on-year to $141 billion — a clear indication that clean energy is now an integral part of the American economy.

Meanwhile, despite the present obstacles, estimations for China’s greenhouse gas emissions indicate a probability exceeding 80 per cent that the country will reach its carbon peak between 2021 and 2026.

The journey towards decarbonization is not without obstacles. As highlighted in a recent review paper published by Applied Energy, about half of the announced economic stimulus plans worldwide continue to be dominated by fossil fuel investments. In countries like Canada, the allocation of subsidies to the oil and gas industry has generated public controversy.

Beyond investments, fundamental changes in how people travel and work — borne of the pandemic — may lead to enduring long-term reductions in the use of fossil fuels for transportation. As evidenced by a recent study published by PNAS, the growth in remote and hybrid work alone could reduce individual carbon footprints by as much as 58 per cent.

All eyes on COP28

The Sunnylands Statement, signifying the world’s two largest economies’ pledge to “pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030,” can thus steer discussions at COP28 towards meaningful fossil fuel phase-out strategies. Yet, concerns emerge when we consider Canada’s lack of determination in phasing out its oil and gas industry.

Reports on Canada’s fossil fuel industry’s role at COP28 have stoked fears of “greenwashing” over carbon capture proposals in Alberta. These proposals are intended to tackle GHG emissions during oil sands production but do not address the emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels.

Two men seen walking towards the camera in front of a group of people.
John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, left, and Xie Zhenhua, China special envoy for climate, walk through the COP28 UN Climate Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo credit: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili.

This brings us to a crucial question looming over COP28: what does “net zero” actually entail? In her book Ending Fossil Fuels, environmental scholar Holly Jean Buck warns against a potentially perilous narrative that envisions a “cleaner fossil world” in which carbon storage and other forms of carbon capture continue to obscure the dominance of fossil fuels, thereby failing to address systemic problems caused by contemporary society’s addiction to carbon-intensive modes of economic growth.

If the unprecedented numbers of lobbyistsand perhaps even the COP28 president — have their say in preventing firm policy language concerning the end of the expansion of fossil fuels then a cleaner fossil-fuel world is likely to become our future. A future we should all be wary of.

Charting a new course

Although the Sunnylands Statement is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it must be accompanied by a focused dialogue on the true meaning of net zero. Will a country lean towards net zero achieved primarily by renewables, or one achieved by carbon capture and storage?

How major economies (the U.S., China, Canada, etc.) approach these issues carries significant national and international consequences. The Sunnylands Statement paved the way for energy talks at COP28, and the world is eagerly watching such talks’ outcomes.

As said by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “The world is watching, and the planet can’t wait.”

What drives people to panic buy during times of crisis: A new study sheds light on the psychology of consumers

Written by Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee, Toronto Metropolitan University and Omar H. Fares, Toronto Metropolitan University. Image credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation. 

People tend to ‘panic buy’ in times of crisis, which often leads to shortages of essential items.

Fear can cause people to behave irrationally in times of uncertainty. During the pandemic, this took the form of panic buying as people flocked to stores to stock up on essential goods. Some even sought to profit off of shortages by price gouging toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

This phenomenon wasn’t just limited to a few countries or communities, either; it was a global occurrence that emptied supermarket shelves and caused significant disruptions in supply chains.

But what drives people to behave in such ways during times of crisis? Is it a basic survival instinct, a herd mentality influenced by social pressures or something more complex?

During the onset of the pandemic, we conducted a study aimed at understanding the complex web of factors that compel us to act or overreact in the face of uncertainty.

Psychological traits of consumers

We examined the following factors in our study: narcissism, psychological entitlement, status consumption, fear of embarrassment, and fear of missing out. Narcissism is a trait characterized by a heightened sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others.

Psychological entitlement refers to the belief that one is inherently deserving of special treatment or privileges. Status consumption is the tendency to purchase items that confer social prestige or dominance.

Fear of embarrassment is anxiety about being negatively judged by others. Fear of missing out is the worry over missing out on rewarding experiences that others are taking part in.

Unique types of consumers

Our study identified four distinct consumer groups, each with unique psychological traits that drove their purchasing habits.

1. Egalitarians. Egalitarians displayed low levels of narcissism and psychological entitlement compared to the other groups. They tend to have a more community-oriented and balanced approach to life. They likely have a strong belief in communal responsibility and fairness. Egalitarians are the type of individuals who volunteer at local food banks or participate in community clean-up events.

In terms of purchasing, egalitarians did not hoard as much as other groups. While others might hoard hand sanitizers, for example, an egalitarian might buy just one or two bottles and leave the rest for others in the community.

People stand in the middle of a supermarket aisle lined with empty shelves
People stand in an aisle of empty shelves in a supermarket in London in March 2020, amid panic-buying due to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo credit: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth.

2. Conformists. Conformists are influenced by a moderate fear of missing out and a high fear of embarrassment. Conformists are the type of people who follow dress codes and rarely question authority.

When it comes to purchasing, conformists prioritized items that aligned with public health guidelines, like disposable masks. They are usually the first to buy masks in bulk when a new public health advisory is released.

3. Communal egoists. Communal egoists display moderate levels of narcissism and psychological entitlement. For example, this kind of person might organize a community event, but will insist on being the centre of attention during the event.

This group is particularly interested in food-related items like bottled water and snacks. A communal egoist might stock up on these products, not only for themselves, but with the intention of sharing with their neighbours in an effort to stand out.

4. Agentic egoists. Agentic egoists are characterized by high levels of narcissism and psychological entitlement. For example, an agentic egoist might cut in line because they believe their time is more valuable than others.

In terms of purchasing, agentic egoists are willing to spend more on items that directly benefit them. For instance, they might buy the last three bottles of an expensive, brand-name cough syrup, without considering that others might need it, too.

What this means for consumers

A significant lesson we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent global turmoil, is the importance of being ready for the unexpected.

If you’ve ever found yourself filling your shopping cart to the brim in a moment of panic, you’re not alone. But understanding who we are, why we make certain decisions and how we can be more considerate is the first step toward making better consumer choices.

Are you an egalitarian, thinking of the community while only buying what you need? Or perhaps you identify as a conformist, sticking strictly to items advised by health authorities? Recognizing these traits in ourselves can be a wake-up call, encouraging us to shop more responsibly, especially in times of fear and panic.

A sign that says '1 packet per person' taped to a shelf of water bottles"
Understanding our motivations and behaviours as consumers can help us make wiser decisions. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

What this means for retailers

Understanding the traits of different customer groups isn’t just about boosting profits. It’s a way to guide businesses in serving communities ethically and effectively, especially in times of crisis.

For example, if most of your customers tend to follow the crowd (conformists), consider offering reliable public health information in your stores. If your clientele leans towards fairness (egalitarians), make fair distribution of essential items a core part of your community support strategy.

If you cater to individuals who focus on their self-interest (agentic egoists), think about the long-term impact of promoting high consumption and how to encourage responsible buying. If a large portion of your customers are community-focused (communal egoists), think about setting up ongoing community-sharing programs or donation drives.

As we reflect on the challenges we’ve faced, retailers have an opportunity to plan for a future where their actions benefit not only their business, but society as a whole. Enhancing our self-awareness enables us to handle chaotic circumstances more gracefully and make decisions that are advantageous for everyone in our vicinity.

How Canadian companies can use tech to identify forced labour in their supply chains

Written by Cory Searcy, Toronto Metropolitan University, Grant Michelson, Macquarie University and Pavel Castka, University of Canterbury. Photo credit: Shuttershock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Canadian companies will soon be legally obligated to annually report on efforts to prevent and remediate forced and child labour in their supply chains. Technology could help them do this.

Levi Strauss Canada is yet another company facing allegations of forced labour in its supply chain. The allegations, which Levi Strauss denies, centre on whether the company is working with suppliers using Uyghur forced labour. With over 27 million people worldwide in forced labour, we can expect to witness similar allegations elsewhere in the coming years.

While Canada enjoys strong protections against labour exploitation, the issue of involuntary work may hit closer to home than expected. The reality is that forced labour could have been used to produce many of our everyday items, including clothing, electronics and vehicles.

Canada has taken a significant step in addressing this problem through the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act. As of Jan. 1, 2024, companies with significant operations in Canada will be legally obligated to pay closer attention to the working conditions in their supply chains.

This act brings Canada’s efforts to address forced labour in alignment with other regions such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

A South Asian man in a black suit and red tie stands in front of a port full of large supply crates.
Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra listens during an announcement at Port Metro Vancouver’s Centerm container terminal on Oct. 14, 2022. Canada passed legislation aimed at addressing forced labour and child labour in supply chains on May 3, 2023. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck.

Under this act, any entity with significant operations in Canada will be obligated to annually report on its efforts to prevent and remediate forced and child labour in its supply chains.

This includes disclosing information about relevant policies, due diligence processes, supply chain hotspots, employee training and remediation measures. The act also includes provisions for corrective measures and punishment.

Identifying forced labour with technology

The complex nature of supply chains makes identifying when and where forced or child labour occurs a significant challenge. Supply chains can contain thousands of suppliers that span continents. Even major international companies like Levi Strauss, which has a strong supplier code of conduct, can end up facing allegations of violations in their supply chains.

To explore how forced and child labour can be identified in supply chains, we conducted over 30 interviews with experts from around the world. These experts included representatives from non-governmental organizations, companies and auditing bodies, providing insight into how emerging technologies can be used to support identifying such practices.

The difficulty of identifying far-flung suppliers, for instance, could be simplified by using DNA to identify a product’s origin, as is done with cottonseafood and chocolate.

Drones and satellite imaging can be used to identify potential forced labour hotspots, such as remote brick kilnsmines or areas of illegal deforestation. AI can also predict areas at high risk of forced and child labor and direct attention to these regions.

Additionally, emerging technologies can help identify some forms of deception. Blockchain technology, for example, can provide an unalterable ledger of transactions in real time, preventing later manipulation. Artificial intelligence can quickly process immense quantities of data, which aids in detecting unusual patterns indicating potential fraud.

A pair of gloved hands pipes clear liquid into a test tub from a pipette
Technologies like DNA tracking can be used to trace the origins of raw materials. Photo credit: AP Photo/Peter Dejong.

Addressing the risk of deceptive practices

In some cases, there are incentives for businesses to conceal illegal and immoral practices. Transparentem, a non-profit group focused on eradicating labour abuse, found evidence of deception during supply chain audits in garment factories in India, Malaysia and Myanmar. These deceptive practices include falsifying documents, coaching workers to lie and hiding workers who appeared to be unlawfully employed.

Based on in-depth interviews with auditors, suppliers, brand representatives and workers in the apparel industry, Human Rights Watch has found these risks are elevated when companies have advance notice of an upcoming audit.

Integrating sensors, cameras and other cloud technology can enable real-time monitoring of working conditions, mitigating the risks of advance notice of audits. Sensors and cameras, for example, have been used on fishing vessels to remotely transmit data in near real-time.

Worker voice platforms, such as those used in the electronics industry, allow workers to provide feedback directly through smartphone apps. This can serve as a real-time whistleblower mechanism for workers trapped in forced labour.

Technology is only part of the solution

Despite its potential benefits, technology still has weaknesses, like high costs, susceptibility to manipulation and weak data security, that need to be addressed. Blockchain technology, for instance, can codify manipulated or incorrect data unless the necessary precautions are taken.

Meeting the requirements of the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act will require grounding technology in a broader risk-based approach consisting of supplier screening, monitoring and auditing.

In addition, even when technology does indicate the presence of forced or child labour, on-the-ground verification and follow-up is often required. Identification is just the first step. The act requires reporting on remediation, which is typically based on long-term collaborative relationships with local parties.

Addressing the issue of forced and child labour in supply chains is difficult and complex. While technology can help companies fulfil their reporting obligations under the act, identifying and remediating these crucial issues will require ongoing and concerted efforts.

The first report is due on May 31, 2024, so companies have no time to spare in working to comply with the act.

Terrorist vs. militant: The complicated language of reporting atrocities in Israel-Hamas war

Written by Ivor Shapiro, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi and Graham Hughes. Originally published in The Conversation

Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine demonstrations have been held around the world since the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, including these protests in Montréal. 

By any definition of terror, the word covers killing children in their homes and taking concert-goers hostage to further a political cause. So why, even after the mass killings and kidnappings in Israel on Oct. 7, do major news organizations resist multiplying calls to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization?

Preliminary phrase searches through ProQuest Global Newstream in the days following Oct. 7 suggest that news organizations with conservative leanings (such as The Telegraph and The Australian) are most likely to use terrorist adjacent to the name Hamas. Wire services, public broadcasters and national news brands with broad readerships reach more diligently for neutral terms. They may call Hamas a militia and use killings or attacks where others say atrocity or slaughter.

For its part, the BBC responded to fierce pressure from politicians and Jewish leaders by claiming the high ground of professional best practice and autonomy, stating:

“The BBC is an editorially independent broadcaster whose job is to explain precisely what is happening ‘on the ground’ so our audiences can make their own judgment.”

The Canadian Press advises journalists to avoid “labelling one side the terrorists, which makes the other side automatically the good guys.”

It points out that language affects perceptions (“‘One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,’ as the saying goes”) and that, in addition to being neutral, “terms such as bombers, gunmen and killers also offer the advantage of being more specific.”

The opposing case for more laden terms is pressed by politicians and advocates who likely echo constituents’ visceral reactions. To those who mourn or rage in violent times, neutral language may seem performative at best — or even cruel. On both sides of the Gaza-Israel Iron Wall, wells of semantic offence rise from aquifers of generational trauma and justified fear.

The enduring offence of neutrality

Neutral language is only one of several rituals through which journalists have long buttressed an occupational ideology centred on truth-telling.

Their stuffiest aspirational ideals — such as professed impartiality, putative firewalls between news and commentary and the mantra “journalism is a discipline of verification” — have been upstaged by an emphasis on transparency and networked collaboration.

A protester holds up a sign that says Free Palestine
Thousands of Moroccans take part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, in Rabat, Morocco on Oct. 15. Photo credit: AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy.

Today’s 24/7 feed of alerts and updates includes a stew of alleged facts and newsy opinions. Some say this is OK because truth is whatever people come to believe after exposure to a variety of reports.

An especially radical post-truth doctrine considers facts ascertainable only through the lens of people’s life experiences. According to this view, sometimes dubbed “standpoint epistemology,” truth-seekers should defer to the realities born, especially, of suffering and prejudice.

Given such ground-shaking critiques, barely a tremor registered when major news sources began calling blatant untruths lies and discriminatory acts racist. So, then, why not terrorist?

Where editors cling on to neutral language, it’s partly to avoid slippery slopes. Leading Israelis have, in recent months, used startlingly non-neutral terms — such as war crime and apartheid — to describe their own country’s management of occupied lands, even as foreign critics were tagged antisemitic. Now, the Oct. 7 attacks are described as pogroms and the siege of Gaza as genocide.

If terms like these are queued next on the why-not playlist of editorial style, it’s merely pragmatic to prefer words denoting data (killed) over those inviting adjudication (murdered).

The reporter’s role as listener

Beyond pragmatism, the pull to neutral ground is consistent with a ubiquitous conception of a journalists’ professional identity.

Despite this century’s digital-information disruptions and social-justice reckonings, many journalists still aspire to “report things as they are.”

The 67-country Worlds of Journalism Study, fielded in the mid-2010s, found surprising resilience in journalists’ self-understanding as “detached observers and objective bystanders.” These ideals were developed in industrialized western countries and successfully exported to other news cultures “through institutional transfer, training, and education, as well as the diffusion of occupational ideologies.”

According to this vision, journalists aren’t qualified to denounce war criminals; at best, they might clearly explain the established protocols for proscribing warfare.

Professional roles shape collective standards and influence, however imperfectly, practice. Some jobs demand partiality, others even-handedness. But for those in conciliatory roles, such as mediators and therapists, a key demand is non-judgmental listening.

Something similar may apply to responsible journalism.

Just three days after the most devastating attacks on Jews since the Holocaust, it was a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz who interviewed Gaza residents about Hamas’s invasion and its consequences.

The report conveyed ordinary people’s raw reactions — longing, rage, dread. One woman said that after early reports: “We were ecstatic.… But as the picture became clearer, and I saw that there were Israeli prisoners, I realized that we were in a nightmare, in hell.”

Likewise, an interview in the U.S. magazine Slate relayed the voice of a peace activist “reeling at the images of the brutality” while struggling, as he put it, to balance solidarity with his fellow Jews against the attacks’ historical background.

“This didn’t happen (because) Palestinians are just some terrible other form of human beings,” he said. Rather, they had “endured so much horror and trauma that they’re responding in this case in really, really terrible ways.”

A woman holds up a sign that says PAIN
People in Tel Aviv shout slogans during an Oct. 14 protest demanding the release of dozens of Israelis who have been abducted during the unprecedented Hamas attack against Israel. Photo credit: AP Photo/Francisco Seco.

Reports like this include emotive words, but in quotation marks. For reporters to honour their listening role demands a disciplined withholding of judgment that requires, in turn, a restrained lexicon. The hoped-for result: a more deeply informed populace.

Elevating facts as an act of faith

Reporters’ professional duty to mirror what’s being said and done stems from their most foundational duty: meeting communities’ need to know what’s going on. How close is the downtown fire to my kid’s school? Is the furniture factory downsizing? Has mom’s apartment building been bombed?

Facts matter locally, nationally, and internationally (see war, above). Constitutional democracies foster autonomous news-gathering through a range of protections that include source confidentiality, libel defences, access to restricted areas and various forms of taxpayer-funded subsidy.

Why? Because these democracies recognize the pursuit and publication of factual information about current affairs (that is, news) to comprise a “public good.”

According to the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, significant numbers of people in many countries remain inclined to trust the news sources they follow, sources often chosen for displaying the decidedly old-fashioned virtues of “balance and impartiality”.

For their part, the most responsible journalists know that their choices of stories, sources and words sometimes deepen innocent people’s wounds. Minimizing harm stands alongside truth-telling amongst journalists’ frequently conflicting principles but making facts plain could carry more weight than that borne by professional diligence.

If so, the enduring draw of unembellished facts could express a collective leap of faith — a gut belief that “reporting things as they are” will ultimately do less harm than good.

And perhaps it will. Perhaps, by expanding the supply of plain truths about human beings’ lives, self-restrained reporters nurture world views that are more expansive and less authoritarian than those fed by prejudices, truisms, and lies.

India’s accusation of ‘terrorism’ is a ploy to hide its own human rights abuses

Written by Fahad Ahmad, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Baljit Nagra, University of Ottawa. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck. Originally published in The Conversation.

A person holds a sign during a protest outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver in September 2023.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused India of being involved in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh leader, on Canadian soil.

Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Indian government is defiant and denies involvement. Indian officials have instead admonished Canada for being a “safe haven” for Sikh “terrorism,” a pejorative for Sikh self-determination.

India’s weaponization of “terrorism” is a ploy to justify its transnational aggression. It is using the rhetoric of “terrorism” seemingly to imply that if the West can engage in extrajudicial killings, India can too.

The tactic also deflects attention from the Modi government’s well-documented abuses of religious minorities, caste-oppressed and Indigenous people, journalists, activists and academics in India.

Deploying “terrorism” as such mirrors a long history of its use by colonial powers to suppress political dissent.

Terrorism: A contested concept

While the use of “terrorism” is ubiquitous, it has no agreed-upon definition. The Criminal Code of Canada defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with “the intention of intimidating the public.”

“Terrorism” also signifies illegitimate or immoral violence, which legal definitions do not capture.

The so-called War on Terror, initiated after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, gave new life to anti-terrorism legislation globally. This is when Canada incorporated the above definition of “terrorism” into the Criminal Code.

As security agencies focused on “terrorism” by Muslim-identified groups, anti-terrorism laws disproportionately targeted Muslims.

Canadian critical race scholar Sherene Razack argues that counter-terrorism uses “race-thinking” to maintain narrow notions of nationhood. This results in marginalizing certain groups that can then be legitimately subject to repressive and unconstitutional laws.

Terrorism and state violence

The term “terrorism” is intertwined with a colonial history of state violence. The British empire routinely invoked “terrorism” to suppress political dissent within colonies.

In the name of national security, “terrorism” was used in Canada to justify state violence against Indigenous people as well as against feminists, labour movements and other political dissidents.

The War on Terror resulted in the American-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, causing death and displacement of millions, as well as the securitization of Muslim citizens.

A grey-haired man stands a podium with the U.S. presidential insignia. Behind him a sign reads Mission Accomplished.
In this May 2003 photo, President George W. Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast. The war dragged on for many years after that. Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

State violence could once itself be considered terrorism, but in recent decades, the term has come to exclude state violence.

Terrorism is now understood as illegitimate violence by non-state entities. This is odd considering states themselves can engage in immoral violence on a scale that cannot be matched by non-state organizations.

State violence is often ideologically motivated, with the intention to induce widespread fear and behavioural change. This has prompted some scholars to make the case for reconsidering state violence itself as terrorism.

Colonial techniques of power

The Indian government’s use of the term “terrorism” to squash political dissent borrows from the playbook of colonial powers.

India’s national security laws — the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) — set the stage for widespread human rights and civil liberties violations.

The Modi government’s 2019 amendment to the UAPA made it possible to designate citizens as terrorists without following formal judicial processes.

These laws have been abused to imprison activists, journalists, human rights defenders, caste-oppressed communities and religious minorities. Claiming terrorism has provided justification to suppress self-determination in Kashmir, the most militarized zone in the world.

Concerns for national security have also dominated new policies in India, like the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Registry of Citizens, that aim to create a monolithic Hindu supremacist state.

Men in turbans hold signs, one reading Stop India From Interfering on Canadian Soil
Protesters rally outside the Indian High Commission in Ottawa in September 2023. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

Avoiding condemnation

By designating Sikh separatists or Khalistanis as “terrorists,” India has escaped widespread domestic condemnation for its alleged involvement in Nijjar’s murder.

In India, in fact, the term “Khalistani” is often seen as synonymous with terrorism. It functions as a stigmatizing label to justify lethal violence against Sikh separatists.

In the past, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has dismissed any form of Sikh dissent by categorizing it as Khalistani. In 2020 and 2021, when thousands of Sikh farmers protested new farming laws, the government attempted to discredit the movement by saying that it had been infiltrated by Khalistanis.

Nijjar’s death could indicate India’s willingness to use state violence against Sikh separatists outside India. In the 1980s, in face of a state-sanctioned pogrom, many Sikhs fled India seeking asylum in Canada and elsewhere.

Today, India targets Sikh political dissidents around the world by labelling them “Khalistani terrorists.” There is widespread speculation India has been violently attacking Sikh activists around the world in violation of international law.

International policing agencies are resisting Indian pressure and refusing extradition requests against Sikh political dissidents.

Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that suggests India was involved in Nijjar’s assassination.

If it turns out India was in fact involved, Nijjar’s death should be regarded not only as an extrajudicial killing but also as an act of state terror — an ideologically driven attempt to quash the Sikh separatist movement by instilling fear among Sikh communities around the world.

Yellow police tape and barricades in front of a government building with palm trees in front of it.
A police barricade around the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi, India, in September 2019 amid diplomatic tensions between India and Canada. Photo credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri.

With the War on Terror, the U.S. and its allies set the stage for countries to justify state violence under the guise of combating terrorism.

It should come as no surprise that India is emulating the West.

Under the leadership of a right-wing Hindu nationalist government, India is providing similar justifications for events like the murder of Nijjar.

The rising cost of living is eroding brand loyalty as consumers seek more cost-effective alternatives

Written by Omar H. Fares, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation

Cutting back on pricier food items and focusing on more affordable staple foods could help consumers deal with rising food costs, but these strategies affect brand loyalty.

As Canadians grapple with the rising cost of living, many consumers are reevaluating their daily choices and purchase habits. The cost of groceries is forcing many households to make difficult decisions, like having to choose between food quality and affordability.

Amid these economic pressures, the concept of brand loyalty — the preference consumers have for a particular brand over others — is undergoing a significant shift. Brand loyalty is the result of a mix of factors, including trusthabit and the perceived value of goods.

Brand loyalty significantly benefits retailers by boosting sales. Not only do existing customers spend more money than new customers, but brand loyalty also reduces the amount brands need to spend on advertising. Effective loyalty programs increase customer retention and result in positive word-of-mouth, meaning companies can spend less on marketing.

Losing loyalty, on the other hand, can result in a competitive disadvantage for retailers. It can lead to revenue loss, increased marketing and customer acquisition costs and negative word-of-mouth.

Once a cornerstone for many food retailers, brand loyalty is eroding as consumers prioritize immediate cost savings over long-term brand relationships.

Nearly seven million Canadians are struggling to put food on the table. Video credit: Global News.

Adapting to rising food costs

Inflation is impacting a wide range of income groups: 81 per cent of lower-income, 50 per cent of middle-income and 35 per cent of high-income earners in Canada are impacted by inflation, spending less on clothing, beauty products and big-ticket items.

Consumers have been adopting various strategies to manage their budgets. Three-quarters of Canadians say they dine out less often because of the rising cost of living, and 70 per cent say inflation has shifted the way they cook.

Despite rising grocery prices, eating at home is still more budget-friendly than eating out and allows for better control over the cost of ingredients.

Some Canadians are also modifying their eating habits by altering portion sizes, cutting back on pricier food items and focusing on more affordable staple foods. While these changes help consumers deal with rising costs, they also come at the expense of brand loyalty.

The digital landscape is also playing a key role in this shift. Consumers are increasingly turning to digital platforms to find economical food options. The convenience of online marketplaces and food delivery services exposes them to a wide array of product choices and competitive pricing.

Consumers also use online tools like coupons and price comparison options to seek discounts. Loyalty programs lose their appeal when consumers prioritize immediate savings.

This transparency and the ease of comparing prices online encourage consumers to explore various brands, making it more challenging for traditional food brands to sustain customer loyalty.

Changing consumer priorities

As prices rise and budgets tighten, consumers are more inclined to seek out more cost-effective options, which often means abandoning favourite brands in pursuit of better value.

One report found that 42 per cent of consumers now seek sales or shop clearance, 40 per cent adhere to a budget, 28 per cent buy less overall and 25 per cent prefer bulk stores or warehouse retailers.

In pursuit of cheaper alternatives, consumers become more open to trying private-label or store-brand products, discounted brands and generic or unbranded options. These alternatives provide shoppers with a practical way to cope with rising prices, allowing them to manage their expenses while maintaining a satisfactory level of product quality.

People browsing the dairy section of a grocery store
People shop inside a grocery store in Toronto, on July 18, 2023. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston.

Inflation also leads to changes in spending habits in a phenomenon known as consumption smoothing. This often involves delaying the purchase of durable goods, prioritizing the purchase of necessities and opting for store-brand products.

In essence, consumers shift their priorities toward cost management, which in turn reduces their loyalty to specific brands. Food companies need to adapt to these changing consumer needs by recognizing affordability and value take precedence in an inflationary market.

What can retailers do?

The shift away from brand loyalty can pose challenges for business owners and retailers who depend on consumer spending. Aside from the most obvious solution to the issue — lowering prices — there are other things retailers can do to win back customers.

First, retailers can use dynamic pricing, allowing them to adjust prices based on factors like supply and demand, inventory and competition. This approach enables them to offer competitive prices and discounts while also minimizing food waste.

Second, retailers can also introduce loyalty programs that go beyond conventional point-based systems. By using personalized data from consumers, retailers can tailor rewards and incentives to match individual shopping habits, experiences and preferences. Retailers can also collaborate with other businesses and incorporate gamification elements to further enhance loyalty.

Lastly, retailers should consider using a value-oriented marketing approach to elevate consumer experiences. Retailers should communicate the value of their products, emphasizing quality, nutritional benefits and unique features to justify their price points.

Simultaneously, investing in exceptional customer experience, both in-store and online, can foster strong emotional connections between retailers and consumers. When consumers feel valued by brands, they are more likely to stay committed to that brand’s products. By assuring customers of their commitment to value, retailers can play a crucial role in guiding consumers through these challenging times.

Grocery retailers are benefiting from food subsidies in Northern Canada

Written by Nicholas Li, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Tracey Galloway, University of Toronto. Photo credit: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick. Originally published in The Conversation

A person walks along a path in Iqaluit on March 6, 2019.

Soaring food pricesgrowing profit margins and record-high profits in the food industry have severely impacted the lives of many Canadians. According to Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s largest grocery chains recently agreed to work with the federal government to stabilize prices.

But for Canadians living in remote northern communities, food affordability has been a crisis for decades. Grocery prices are routinely two to three times higher in Northern Canada.

These high food prices, combined with limited economic opportunities and high rates of poverty, have led to Northern Canada having the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. Almost half of all Nunavut households are moderately or seriously food insecure.

The federal government’s main policy to tackle this is a program called Nutrition North Canada that was launched in 2011. The program pays $131 million a year in subsidies to retailers based on the weight of eligible food they ship by air to communities without year-round surface transportation.

Subsidy rates vary based on the remoteness of communities as well as item type. For example, milk receives the highest subsidy, orange juice receives a lower subsidy and potato chips receive no subsidy.

Plastic bags sitting on a table in front of a window
Tables of pre-prepared food hampers sit ready inside the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre in Iqaluit on March 15, 2023. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dustin Patar.

Under the program, retailers sign an agreement promising to pass subsidies on to consumers in a process known as a “pass-through.” This means that if the government pays a retailer $1 to ship an item, the price of that item should be $1 lower for consumers.

However, residents of these communities have expressed concern that retailers may be taking advantage of them and using subsidies to increase their profits.

Insufficient accountability measures

To determine how much of the Nutrition North Canada subsidy was passed on to consumers, our recent study examined how much subsidy increases in October 2016 and January 2019 lowered food prices. We controlled for factors like food inflation, energy prices and high freight/operating costs.

We found that for every dollar paid to a retailer to reduce shipping costs, the prices paid by consumers fell by only 67 cents. When we considered communities with a single grocery retail store affected by the January 2019 subsidy increase, we found that an extra dollar paid to retailers reduced consumer prices by only 26 cents.

Our main finding — that the subsidy was not fully passed-through to consumers — remained unchanged when we considered only the most perishable goods, or accounted for economies of scale in shipping and other community characteristics.

Our findings indicate that Nutrition North Canada’s accountability measures are insufficient. Despite the publication of data on the subsidy and the price of a retail basket, and the existence of an auditing mechanism to ensure compliance with the program’s requirements, a substantial share of the subsidy is being captured by retailers.

The biggest retailer in the region — the North West Company — is a profitable, multi-billion dollar company that receives over half of the subsidy because these communities face far less competition than in the rest of Canada. According to the North West Company’s website, it “uses the entire amount of the subsidy to reduce retail prices for shoppers.”

A NorthMart grocery store situated in a snowy landscape
The North West Company owns and operates a number of grocery stores in Northern Canada, including NorthMart. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

Better addressing the problem

Why do existing accountability measures fail? First, it’s difficult to measure subsidy pass-through and retailer margins, especially with traditional audits. The contribution of retailer profits to high food prices today is still being debated.

Second, it may be even harder to punish retailers in this setting. A substantial share of the subsidy still goes to consumers, so punishing retailers by removing the subsidy would make food even more expensive.

How, then, can the federal government better address the problem of food affordability and insecurity in remote northern communities? Recent additions to the Nutrition North program, like the Harvester’s Support Grant, are a response to communities demanding more control over their food systems. This could involve subsidizing traditional hunting activities and funding community-led initiatives to support those in greatest need.

While these measures are promising, they are unlikely to replace the importance of store-bought food shipped by air. Measures to increase competition may help since retailers in these communities face far less competition than in the rest of Canada, but it’s still challenging for small, remote communities to have substantial competition.

While price controls and state-run stores (such as those in Greenlandcould be worth exploring, they also have pros and cons that need to be carefully considered.

A simple and more market-friendly approach would require retailers to publish the price of all subsidized goods online. Greater transparency about food prices would help communities and their leaders hold retailers accountable in the court of public opinion, and make analyses like ours easier to conduct. While not a standalone solution for food affordability and insecurity in these communities, it could ensure more of our tax dollars go to support those in need.