This is the first in a two-part series about advancing sustainable living
Sustainability is a complex issue and one not always well understood by consumers. When a shopper stands facing a wall of products in the supermarket, the choice of options and price points alone can be overwhelming without throwing environmental concerns into the mix. And so, for all but the most informed and diligent among us, the shopper buys based on habit (what they always buy), price (what's on sale) or marketing (what they saw an ad for and identify as something that someone like them would use). This is a very simplistic example, of course. Consumer behaviours, like sustainability, are extremely complex. Given the multitude of factors that affect consumer choices, how can a company convince consumers to behave sustainably in both their purchases and after-market behaviours?
The OECD suggests that the way to get consumers to make sustainable choices is by playing to their biases:
"Behavioural biases are an important variable influencing consumption as people may not behave "rationally" when making purchasing and lifestyle decisions. Biases can stem from habits and customs, susceptibility to advertising and product promotions, brand loyalties, risk aversions, and peer pressures, among other factors. Successful sustainable consumption approaches try to make biases work towards sustainable choices." (OECD, Promoting Sustainable Consumption)
While many consumers say that they would prefer to buy sustainable products, they often don't follow through on that conviction. Personal biases get in the way because they matter more to the consumer than a sustainable choice might. Only when a product can overcome those biases, either by aligning with a consumer's beliefs or by changing those beliefs to promote new behaviours, can long-lasting change happen.
A recent IPSOS poll suggests that price, convenience and bias are currently major factors in whether or not a consumer will choose a 'green' product:
It would appear on the surface that providing green products that are cheap(er) and meet the needs of consumers would cause them to behave more sustainably. But this is an indirect method that forces sustainable behaviour and would last only until a newer, cheaper, more convenient product, green or not, comes along. So what would convince the majority of consumers to change their ways?
Changing long-held biases and beliefs can be difficult. In order to get consumers to behave more sustainably both in the store and once they get home, companies will have to engage them in a way that is meaningful and honest and allows consumers to feel as though they are the ones driving change.
An example of an attempt at promoting sustainability can be seen at much-maligned Walmart. The company has some very good sustainability strategies that are not widely trumpeted to their customer base and has tried, via a partnership with Unilever, to promote environmental awareness in its stores. In Brazil, 'Casa do Bem' (Sustainable House) shows consumers how to lead a more environmentally-friendly life and while there's nothing wrong with this type of campaign, it lacks true engagement. It provides information without asking for input. Consumers walk away from the display with, hopefully, more knowledge but likely without the personal motivation to change their ways. Appealing to the minds of consumers is only half the equation; companies must also appeal to their hearts.
Contrast the Walmart/Unilever awareness campaign with a stellar example of consumer engagement in April, also from Unilever:
Unilever's Sustainable Living Lab invited people to speak to sustainability issues over the course of 24 hours. It was an engaging event with sometimes hotly-debated topics, knowledgeable moderators, and a broad range of participants from ordinary consumers through industry experts. The company will have benefitted greatly from the exchange, but participants would have also walked away with new information, an appreciation for the complexity of the issues and a sense that they had contributed to something greater than themselves. In giving consumers a voice, Unilever has made them more likely to follow the company's sustainability efforts to see if they will align with what was discussed. That increased awareness of and engagement with the brand will lead to greater loyalty to the brand. And voila, a shift in bias will have occurred for some consumers. Unilever, of course, now has the monumental task of following through on its commitments.
The key to increasing sustainable behaviours lies in changing the biases of consumers: making sustainability a highly valued option and then aligning behaviours with those values. In the short-term, consumer engagement will go a long way toward creating a commitment to sustainable living. In the long-term, we need to create an informed public that views sustainable living as the way forward. That kind of teaching needs to start early with greater investments in sustainability education - the topic of the next Company2Keep post. Stay tuned for part 2....
Image via Flickr user HikingArtist.com