Reducing society’s impact on the environment requires the whole human race to change its behaviour. For organisations seeking to encourage that change, the key is to identify sustainable behaviours that are achievable but still have an impact.
In 2000 disappointing sales of its Earth Light prompted Philips Lighting to rename the compact fluorescent bulb “Marathon”. With long life, rather than low power consumption, as the selling point, sales of the Marathon bulb began to rise.
This is an example of a phenomenon that policymakers, businesses, environmental advocates and others should note as they seek new ways to encourage consumers to make choices that will save energy, avoid waste or reduce water consumption.
The drive towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy has often focused on physical infrastructure and industrial supply chains. Companies have been working to reduce their environmental footprint, while governments have promoted investment in renewable energy or green buildings.
However, these efforts can only go so far without recognising that much of the environmental impact of today’s industrial economy lies in the hands of consumers. Unilever, for example, has calculated that the way people use its products generates 68% of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions.
With consumer choices a critical part of achieving environmental sustainability, decision-makers – whether in the public or the private sector – must work out what psychological or policy levers are most likely to prompt changes in behaviour.
“If you just say ‘Save the world’, it doesn’t help. You have to pick the right specific behaviours.”
Some governments have started to investigate this. In the UK, for example, a Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the Nudge Unit) taps into research into behavioural economics and psychology to inform public policy. Trial projects have seen the unit work with retailers, including home improvement chains Homebase and B&Q, to offer incentives for buying energy-efficient products.
However, too often policymakers are failing to make clear exactly how they want consumer choices to shift, says BJ Fogg, director of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. “If you just say ‘Save the world’, it doesn’t help. You have to pick the right specific behaviours.”
This means identifying habit changes that would make the greatest impact on the environment and at the same time would also be easy, and even beneficial, for people to adopt. “It’s the combination of impact and feasibility,” says Dr Fogg. “Those are the behaviours you should design for – and that’s been the biggest thing lacking so far.”
He cites California, a state badly affected by drought-related water shortages. “They’ve said things like ‘Tear up your front lawn and take shorter showers’. But they’ve not said ‘Here are ten things you can do’ and explained the relative impact of each.”
Technology can help. A growing number of smartphone apps help consumers make eco-friendly buying decisions, whether by calculating the carbon footprint of daily activities or by finding local places to recycle electronic equipment or batteries. However, apps can only help people who have already decided to make these choices.
Hearts and minds
Not everyone is as yet convinced of the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle, and as organisations consider how to craft marketing messages or policy initiatives that can influence behaviour, they must navigate wildly varying attitudes to environmental sustainability.
For example, Yale and George Mason University have identified what they call “Global Warming’s Six Americas”. Their research divides the US public into groups that range from “the Alarmed” (those seeing climate change as real and dangerous and who support individual and political action to mitigate the threat) to “the Dismissive” (those convinced that climate change is not occurring and who believe no response should be made).
In some places, local conditions influence the likelihood of consumers adopting more sustainable behaviour. In China, for example, the severe pollution that is causing health problems for the residents of big cities has given the government a stronger mandate with which to introduce measures to combat climate change.
However, in some cases (as demonstrated by Philips’ rebranding of its bulb), sustainable choices are more rapidly adopted when they are not presented as a sacrifice. “Efficiency sells, saving money sells,” says Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, a sustainability communications company. “And sustainability often is about efficiency and saving money.”
Mobile operators such as O2 and Vodafone are tapping into this principle by allowing users to upgrade their phones early. This gives the companies a way to retrieve and then reuse or recycle their equipment. But instead of telling customers that they are offering a sustainable product, their marketing focuses on the fact that customers will be able to use devices with the latest technology upgrades.