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.
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.
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).
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.
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