Sustainability trend 2013: consumer behaviour change

Esther Toth


Posted in: Speaking Out, Waste

Sustainability trend 2013: consumer behaviour change

January 31, 2013

Consumer behaviour change – what’s it all about? Esther Toth looks at the latest developments, what business knows, and what it can learn. We provide six useful lessons for companies on how to change consumer behaviour.

It is officially trend season. January is the month when a myriad of articles crop up, either summarising the hot sustainability issues of the past year, or forecasting emerging trends for the next one. We think the sustainability issue that will be under spotlight this year is consumer behaviour change.

What is behaviour change?

Definitions of behaviour change range from the simplistic, ‘what it says on the tin’, to the more complex and scientific. Perhaps it is easier to first look at what we cannot label as behaviour change:

  • (one-way) communication and awareness raising on social and environmental issues;
  • consumer education and engagement on sustainability, even if it involves real (two-way) stakeholder dialogue, or
  • changing consumer attitudes or perceptions (but not actions or behaviours).

All of the above are important activities, and can serve as precursor to a consumer behaviour change campaign, but the two are not the same.

Why now?

Many factors have contributed to consumer behaviour change being viewed as a sustainability issue. These range from basic reputational risk management to brand differentiation.  I want to focus on two catalysts of change: (1) the increasing use of product life cycle assessments (LCAs) and (2) the growing appreciation of the ‘last mile problem’.

Firstly, more and more companies are conducting and publishing findings from product LCA research, such as Levi Strauss & Co’s and P&G. Such research shows that a large proportion of a company’s negative impacts materialise at the “end use” stage. This is especially true for companies in the fast-moving consumer goods, clothing or consumer electronics sectors. If a company is serious about reducing its environmental footprint, then changing how consumers use and dispose of its products should be an essential part of the sustainability strategy mix.

The second aspect is the so called “last mile problem”. In the sustainability domain, the last mile problem highlights the need for companies to dedicate resources not just to develop sustainable products, but also to make sure that consumers a) know about these products and b) use and dispose of them the right way.

What has worked so far?

The “Ariel Turn 30°” and M&S’s ‘Shwop” campaigns are often mentioned as good practice examples. “Fishfight”, the campaign by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has also made a difference – at least in the UK – to how we value marine sustainability. Unilever is ahead of the pack with their “Five Levers for Change” behaviour change model. But others are catching up fast. In 2012 for example, SC Johnson launched a 5-year research programme to understand how sustainable behaviour can become a social norm.

In need of inspiration?

The CSR and sustainability field has learnt valuable lessons from communication and advertising professionals on how to sell an idea.  But other disciplines can also offer new insights into consumer behaviour change. Such as: social marketing and behavioural economics. Here we present six interesting lessons for companies to scratch their heads about.

What can we learn from social marketing?

  • The importance of research. There will be no behaviour change without accurate consumer insight. Use a creative mix of data sources and research methods to understand the behaviours, issues, barriers and enablers that are specific to the target audience.
  • Without measurement there is no ‘change’. Define both the unwanted and the desired behaviours to make sure that the change is measurable. Set clear, specific, measurable and time-bound behavioural goals.
  • Define the “behavioural exchange”. This is one of the central principles of social marketing. Consider the costs as well as the benefits of changing a particular behaviour. Minimise the costs, maximise the benefits.

What can we learn from behavioural economics?

  • Don’t always count on logic. Just because a new behaviour is easier, simpler, cheaper or more fun does not mean that people will adopt it.
  • Emphasize the potential losses, not just the benefits. Influence consumers by explaining what consumers would lose out on by not changing their behaviour. This is a powerful tool that plays to people’s need to hang on to what is already theirs.
  • Use social norms and competition to your advantage. As members of the human species, we generally like to follow the herd, but we also like to be a little bit better/thinner/smarter than our neighbour. Use this.

Extending corporate responsibility to address issues around (un)sustainable lifestyles is likely to be the sustainability conundrum of the early 21st century. As such, companies can no longer ignore the challenge of consumer behaviour change, as it is increasingly critical to the success of their sustainability strategies and ultimately their brands.

Esther Toth is a Consultant at Corporate Citizenship specialising in sustainability strategy development and stakeholder engagement.