5 ways to shift consumers towards sustainable behaviour

Authored by:

David J. Hardisty, Assistant Professor of Marketing & Behavioral Science, University of British Columbia; Katherine White, Professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science, University of British Columbia,
Rishad Habib, PhD student, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

Most people want to be sustainable, but have a hard time taking the necessary actions.

According to Nielsen, a data analytics company, sustainability is the latest consumer trend. Their research shows chocolate, coffee and bath products with sustainability claims grew much faster than their traditional counterparts. Yet only 0.2 per cent of chocolates and 0.4 per cent of coffees have environmental claims.

How can we translate this consumer sustainability buzz into actual action? To find out, our group reviewed 320 academic articles in the top consumer behaviour journals and identified five routes to shift consumers towards sustainable choices: social influence, habits, individual self, feelings and cognitions, and tangibility. Together, these make a handy acronym, SHIFT.

Social influence

Humans are social animals and will follow the actions of others, especially on ethical issues. When people learn they are using more energy than their neighbours, they decrease their energy usage.

Insulating your home, sealing air leaks and turning the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter can save energy and lower bills. (Shutterstock)

But what if the sustainable behaviour has yet to be established? For example, how does one convince people to install solar panels if no one in their neighbourhood is doing it? A “brand ambassador” can be invaluable. Solar advocates who had installed solar panels in their own homes were able to recruit 63 per cent more residents to purchase and install solar panels.


For ethical behaviours, learning about the behaviours of others can be motivating. In one example, when business students on a college campus heard that computer science students were better at composting and recycling, they more than doubled their efforts.


To build a new sustainable habit, one must first break bad habits. This is easiest when someone is experiencing big life changes, such as moving, getting married or starting a new job. In one study, people who had recently moved cut their car usage almost in half.

Another strategy is to apply penalties for bad behaviour, rather than rewarding good behaviour. There is a possibility, however, that people will return to their old ways if the penalty is removed and the new habit isn’t formed.

New shopping habits can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill. (Shutterstock)

To build new habits, it can be helpful to make the sustainable action easy to do, provide timely prompts, offer incentives to help get the new behaviour started and provide real-time feedback about actions over an extended period of time. A review of feedback techniques finds when real-time energy use is shared directly with homeowners, electricity consumption dropped by five to 15 per cent. 

Individual Self

Sustainability can appear more attractive when the personal benefits such as health or product quality are highlighted. Emphasizing self-efficacy also works. When people know their actions matter, they make greener choices.
Self-consistency is also important. People like their words and actions to be consistent. Often one environmental commitment can snowball into other actions and changes over time. For example, someone who insulates their house to improve energy efficiency may be more likely to unplug electric devices when they leave for a vacation.
Likewise, consumers expect companies to be consistent. In one study, when a hotel made visible environmental efforts (such as offering compostable toiletries) and asked guests to save energy, guests reduced their energy usage by 12 per cent. In the absence of visible efforts, the appeal appeared hypocritical and energy use increased.

Read more:
How the coffee industry is about to get roasted by climate change

There’s also self-concept to consider. People make choices that match their perception of who they are or who they want to be. One study found that environmentalism is sometimes perceived as being feminine, which can turn away some men who subscribe to traditional gender roles. Presenting environmentalism as a way to protect and preserve wilderness environments was attractive to both men and women, and closed the gender gap that is often seen in sustainability.

Feelings and cognitions

Sometimes we make decisions at the spur of the moment, based on how we feel at the time. And sometimes we make decisions after thoughtful deliberation. When communicating about sustainability, it is important to consider both the heart and the head.

Consumers seek out positive emotions such as happiness, pride and the warm glow that comes from doing good. If the sustainable option is fun, people will naturally want to do it. Conversely, negative emotions such as fear and guilt can be effective when used subtly. But an overly emotional, guilt-tripping message is a turn-off and will either be actively ignored or even induce the opposite behaviour (psychological reactance).

Read more:
Language matters when the Earth is in the midst of a climate crisis

Providing consumers with the correct information and education is important, but it must be framed so that consumers care. Energy labels highlighting the watts used by different light bulbs have little effect on consumer purchases, but energy labels showing the 10-year cost quadrupled energy-efficient purchases to 48 per cent from 12 per cent. Thoughtfully designed eco-labels are a great way to communicate sustainability to consumers.


In general, people don’t care much about abstract, future consequences. Therefore, it’s critical to make sustainability tangible.

One way is to communicate the local and proximate impacts of pro-environmental actions. For example, how are local animals, plants and people already being affected by climate change?

Concrete examples also help. People are more moved by a photograph showing how far a single glacier has retreated in one year than by a graph of glacier retreat around the world.

To match consumer timescales with environmental timescales, project consumers into the future. One study found that people who were asked to consider their legacy (“How will I be remembered?”), donated 45 per cent more to a climate change charity.

To make the SHIFT, use several strategies at once. For example, make the behaviour social and tangible. Test the approach in a small group and measure the results. If it doesn’t work, try something else until you find a winner and then scale up.

Working together, we can close the “green gap” and turn intentions into actions.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. Our household has had notice from Hydro that over the year we use more energy than people in our area. The others on our street are all seasonal, shutting down in the fall, until late spring, but as full timers there is no way to match their usage. Shaming will not work.

    • Karen Wehrstein on

      When comparing your usage to theirs, you have to count all the usage they incur in their homes down in the city. Bettering their *total* usage isn’t so hard.

  2. How are people supposed to re insulate there homes or buy solar panels when they can barley keep up with there mortgage oh yeh buy a cheaper home There is no such thing as a cheap home in Muskoka any more all this stuff cost’s money that most don’t have.

    • Karen Wehrstein on

      Bring back government incentives.
      In 2008 I switched to geothermal heat, which is very expensive to install, with the help of a combined federal and provincial incentive that covered about a quarter of the cost. My carbon footprint, not to mention my heating bill, has been that much smaller ever since. But no one’s doing that now, because the program was eliminated, I think during Harper’s tenure.
      But, you ask, Ontario’s already overdrawn, how will we pay for this? Environmental taxes on corporations — basically making them pay for the actual cost of environmental damage they incur, for a change — is the obvious solution to me. But however it is done, it must be done — because we *will* pay, no matter what we do. We will pay *bigtime*. It is a matter of paying a dollar now for a controlled decrease of greenhouse gas emissions instead of a hundred or a thousand dollars down the road for rebuilding civilization, if that’s even possible. It is unrealistic not to recognize that.

  3. Karen, I commend your forward thinking about running geothermal, it does indeed reduce your local carbon footprint, however with increased electricity usage we need to look at the bigger picture. ***IF*** a significant portion of our population switches from fossil fuel heating systems to electrical heating systems such as your geothermal system, we will reduce green house emissions from the natural gas, propane, and fuel oil furnaces that are removed. The increased electrical load will require more generating output, and right now that translates to more electricity sourced from the United States. There are far too many coal generating stations still operating in the USA and ultimately we would just be switching our carbon impact from one source to another.

    We as a country need to embrace more electricity generation from wind and solar, but it can not easily be done on a large scale. We need to start locally (at home) generating electricity and using it at home to heat our houses, heat our water, cook our food, dry our clothes, charge our cars…. ect.

    Until we can ensure that all electricity is produced ‘green’ then we are truly not having a big impact by switching from fossil fuels to geothermal. Natural gas and propane are still cleaner to burn then coal. Like you stated, bring back the incentives and more consumers will add geothermal, solar generation, wind generation.

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