On the surface, it seems like there has never been a better time to start selling something that is good for the environment. Consumers, especially Millennials, are saying more and more that they want brands with a purpose and that care about the environment. In fact, a recent report showed that some types of products that said they were good for the environment grew twice as fast as their traditional counterparts. But there is still a frustrating paradox at the heart of green business: not many people who say they like eco-friendly products and services actually buy them. In a recent survey, 65% of people said they want to buy brands with a purpose and a focus on sustainability, but only about 26% do so.
This “intention-action gap” needs to be closed in order for companies to meet their sustainability goals and for the planet as a whole. Unilever says that almost 70% of its greenhouse gas footprint depends on what products customers buy and how they use and dispose of them. For example, if customers use less water and energy when doing the laundry or recycle containers properly after use, this will reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas footprint.
We’ve been studying how to get people to consume in a sustainable way for a few years now. We’ve done our own tests and looked at research from marketing, economics, and psychology. The good news is that academics have learned a lot about how to get people to act in ways that match what they say they want. Much of the research has focused on what policymakers can do to help, but the results can be used by any group that wants to get people to buy and act in more sustainable ways. By putting these ideas together, we’ve come up with five things companies can do: use social influence, help people form good habits, take advantage of the domino effect, decide whether to talk to the heart or the brain, and put experiences ahead of ownership.
Make Use Of Social Influence
In 2010, there was a problem in Calgary, Alberta. It had just started a programme called “grasscycling,” in which people leave grass clippings on their lawns after mowing instead of putting them in bags and taking them to a landfill. The city had made an informational campaign about the programme that pointed out its benefits: Grasscycling would return important nutrients to the soil, protect the lawn, and help the soil retain water. Even better, this sustainable behaviour required less work on the part of the person. But at first, fewer people signed up than the city had expected.
One of us (White) suggested that Calgary try to change the way people act by using “social norms,” which are unwritten rules that people in a group agree are acceptable. Dozens of studies have shown that people want to fit in and will change their behaviour to match that of those around them. White and her colleague Bonnie Simpson worked with the city on a large-scale field study where they left notes on people’s doors saying, “Your neighbours are grasscycling.” You can too” and “Most people are looking for ways to cut down on the amount of trash that ends up in landfills.” “You can help by grasscycling.” Within two weeks, almost twice as many people were gardening at home because of this simple change compared to the control condition.
Using the power of social influence is one of the best ways to get people to act in ways that are good for the environment. When online shoppers were told that other people were buying eco-friendly products, the number of people who bought something green went up by 65%. By telling people at a buffet that they shouldn’t take too much at once and that they could go back for more, you can cut food waste by 20.5%. People are more likely to put up solar panels if their close neighbours have already done so. And, in what may be the most surprising result, telling college students that other commuters were giving up their cars for more environmentally friendly ways to get to work (like biking) made them use environmentally friendly transportation five times more often than those who were just told about alternatives.
Social motivators don’t always work, though. If only a few people do something that is good for the environment, it may seem like it is not accepted by society, which makes people less likely to do it. When this happens, companies can hire advocates to talk about the good things about the product or action. Advocates are most convincing when they do what they say they want others to do. One study found that when an advocate explained why he or she had installed residential solar panels, 63% more people followed suit than when the advocate had not actually installed panels.
Some consumer groups may also be turned off by social norms. For example, some men think that being environmentally friendly is a sign of being feminine, so they avoid environmentally friendly options. But this effect can be lessened if a brand is already strongly linked to masculinity. For example, Jack Daniel’s makes sustainability a part of many parts of its business. Taglines like “With all due respect to progress, the world could use a little less plastic” (with a row of wooden barrels) and “Even Jack Daniel’s waste is too good to waste” link sustainability to quality and great taste. The company doesn’t send any trash to landfills because it sells waste products and unused resources to other businesses. And whiskey fans can buy used charcoal from the ageing vats in the form of barbecue briquettes to grill at home, reinforcing traditional masculine values. All of this shows how much the company cares about the work ethic, the land and air, and the community where it does business. So that it doesn’t lose its reputation as a tough, masculine brand, it has skillfully added sustainability to its branding.
In another case, people who lean to the right on the political spectrum are sometimes less likely to do things that are good for the environment because they think of them as being more liberal. In the US, Republicans were less likely to buy a compact fluorescent light bulb that they knew used less energy than an incandescent bulb if it said “Protect the Environment” on it than if it didn’t say that.
One way to fix this is to make sure that communications fit with Republicans’ sense of political identity. For example, you could talk about duty, authority, and being consistent with in-group norms. In one field study, telling Republican residents, “You can join the fight by recycling with others like you in your community,” made them recycle more. Because recycling is the right thing to do in our society, what you do helps us do our civic duty. We can do what important people tell us to do and recycle because of people like you. “You CAN get involved!” This didn’t work as well with Democrats, who were more likely to pay attention to messages about social welfare. Focusing on things that everyone cares about, like family, community, prosperity, and safety, is another way to solve the problem.
Sustainable product options are often seen negatively by consumers, who think they are of lower quality, less appealing to the eye, and more expensive. In one case, when people wanted a strong product, like a car cleaner, they were less likely to choose one that was good for the environment. One way to get people to stop thinking negatively about a product is to highlight its good qualities, like being innovative, new, and safe. For example, Tesla puts more emphasis on how its cars look and work than on how green they are, which is a message that resonates with its target market. This also helps men get over the idea that green products are only for women.
There are three ways to boost your social influence. The first way is by making people more aware of how to act in a sustainable way. People were asked to choose between an eco-friendly granola bar with the slogan “Good for you and the environment” and a traditional granola bar with the slogan “A healthy, tasty snack.” This was part of Katherine White’s research. When other people were around, the sustainable choice was made twice as often as when it was made alone. Other scientists have found similar effects with products like eco-friendly hand sanitizers and cars with high fuel efficiency. When people in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were required to put their trash in clear bags, the neighbours could see what was in the trash, which often included things that should have been recycled or composted. As a result, 31% less trash ended up in the landfill.
A second way to make social influence more powerful is to make people’s promises to act in an eco-friendly way public. For example, putting a card on a hotel room door to show that guests agree to reuse towels increased towel reuse by 20%. In a similar study, asking hotel guests to wear a pin that showed they were committed to an energy-saving programme made them use towels 40% more often. Some parents were asked to put a sticker in their car windows that said “For Our Air: I Turn Off My Engine When Parked” as part of a study to reduce the amount of time cars were sitting still while picking up kids from school. Idling time went down by 73% after the intervention.
A third way is for social groups to compete with each other in a healthy way. In one case, business students were more than twice as likely to compost their biodegradable coffee cups after hearing that another group of students was doing something they liked. When the World Wildlife Fund and its partner volunteer organisations wanted to raise awareness about sustainable actions for Earth Hour, a global lights-off event, they started friendly competitions between cities to save energy. The programme has spread through social diffusion. It started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007 and is now in 188 countries. From January to March 2018, 3.5 billion people talked about it on social media, and during Earth Hour 2018, lights were turned off at almost 18,000 landmarks.
Develop Good Habits
People like to stick to the same things. We do a lot of the same things every day, like how we get to work, what we buy, what we eat, and how we throw away products and their packaging. Most of the time, the best way to get people to do things that are good for the environment is to first break bad habits and then encourage good ones.
Habits are set off by cues that are found in familiar situations. For example, the 500 billion times a year that people around the world use disposable coffee cups may be a response to cues like the default cup given by the barista or a trash can with a picture of a cup. Both of these are common in coffee shops.
Companies can get rid of bad habits and replace them with good ones by using design features. Making sustainable behaviour the default choice is probably the easiest and most effective way to do it. For example, researchers in Germany found that when green electricity was set as the default option in residential buildings, 94% of people stuck with it. In other cases, making green choices, like reusing towels or getting electronic bank statements instead of paper ones, was the default, which made more people choose the greener choice. In California, plastic straws no longer come with drinks at full-service restaurants. Instead, customers must ask for one. Another way to get people to do what you want them to do is to make it easier for them to do it. For example, you could put recycling bins close by to make it easier to sort recyclables or give out free travel cards for public transportation.
Using prompts, giving feedback, and offering incentives are three subtle ways to help people form good habits.
Prompts could be text messages that remind people to do things they want to do, like bike, jog, or take another eco-friendly way to get to work. Prompts work best when they are easy to understand, given in the place where the behaviour will happen, and make people want to do the behavior. In one study, recycling went up by 54% just because prompts were put near recycling bins.
People get feedback on both how well they did on their own and how well they did compared to others. Energy bills that show how a person’s energy use compares to that of their neighbours can encourage people to use less energy. Real-time feedback, like what the Toyota Prius gives drivers about their gas mileage, can be effective if the behaviour is repeated often, like driving a car in different kinds of traffic.
There are many kinds of incentives. Coca-Cola and Merlin Entertainments have teamed up in the UK to offer “reverse vending machines” that give people half-price tickets to theme parks when they recycle their plastic drink bottles. Care should be taken when using incentives, because if you take them away, the behaviour you want to see may go away, too. Another worry is that they might make people less interested in doing something on their own. In the study “Are Two Reasons Better Than One?” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers found that combining external incentives (“Save money!”) with intrinsic motives (“Save the environment!”) made people less likely to choose a sustainable product than intrinsic appeals alone. The authors thought that this happened because an outside motivation can “crowd out” a desire that comes from within.
Even when you use these methods, it’s almost always hard to break bad habits. But major life changes, like moving to a new neighbourhood, starting a new job, or making new friends, may be the exception. This is because these changes make people more likely to think about their routines and try new things with them. One study looked at 800 homes, and half of them had just moved. Half of the people in each group (half of the movers and half of the nonmovers) were given an intervention that included an interview, a selection of eco-friendly items, and information about sustainability. After the intervention, the people who moved were much more likely than those who didn’t move to do things that were good for the environment.
Use The “Domino Effect”
One good thing about helping people form good habits is that it can lead to other good things. People like to be consistent, so if they start doing something good, they are often more likely to do other good things in the future. IKEA launched the Live Lagom sustainability program. In Swedish, “lagom” means “just the right amount.” IKEA studied the sustainability journey of a core group of its customers in great detail. The company found that even though people may start by doing just one thing, like cutting down on food waste, they often move on to do other things, like save energy. IKEA also saw a snowball effect. People would start with small actions and build up to ones that were more important. For example, buying LED light bulbs could lead to wearing warmer clothes and turning down the thermostat, changing curtains and blinds to reduce heat loss, insulating doors and windows, buying energy-efficient appliances, installing a programmable thermostat, and so on.
It is important to remember that negative spillover can also happen. Someone may act less sustainably after doing something that is good for the environment. Researchers call this “licensing.” It happens when a consumer thinks that doing something ethical once gives them permission to act less morally in the future. In one case, researchers found that people who had done a virtual green shopping task were less likely to help others in a game by allocating resources than people who had done a virtual traditional shopping task. In other cases, people use more paper when they can prove they are recycling and more of a product (like mouthwash, glass cleaner, or hand sanitizer) when it is made to last. People may drive more miles in cars with better gas mileage, and they may use their home heating and cooling systems more if they are more efficient.
Companies can take steps to make it less likely that bad things will happen. They can make sure that the first action toward sustainability takes a lot of work, which seems to build commitment. When people are asked to make smaller commitments, it’s best not to make those actions public because that could lead to slacktivism. In one study, people who had shown “public” support for a cause, like joining a “public” Facebook group or signing an online petition, to show that they were “good people,” were less likely to do something private, like volunteer for the cause, later on. But people who joined a Facebook group or signed a petition on their own time were more likely to see the cause as a reflection of their true values and stick with it. This is different from the earlier example of giving pins to hotel guests who choose energy-efficient options because, in that study, wearing a pin was explicitly linked to a promise to do something sustainable. People who think that a small, one-time act of support is enough to show they care about a cause often do less good in the future.
Choose Whether You Want To Talk To Your Heart Or Your Head
How companies talk to their customers has a huge effect on whether or not they do things that are good for the environment. Marketers often have to choose between emotional appeals and logical arguments when they are getting ready to launch or promote a product or a campaign. Either one can work, but only if certain things are true.
The Appeal To Feelings
When people feel good about doing something, they are more likely to keep doing it. When it comes to sustainability, this basic idea is often overlooked, and ads tend to focus on scary warnings instead. Researchers have found that hope and pride are especially good at getting people to buy things that are good for the environment. Bacardi and Lonely Whale are working together to get rid of one billion single-use plastic straws. To promote events and get people to take action, they use the hashtag #thefuturedoesn’tsuck. And in one study, when people were praised in public each week for their efforts to save energy, it made them feel proud. This made them save more energy than the people who were given small financial rewards (up to €5) each week.
Guilt is a more complicated way to make yourself feel bad. White and his colleagues’ research shows that it can be a good way to motivate people, but it should be used carefully. In one experiment, when accountability was subtly brought up (participants were asked to choose a product in public), consumers said they would feel guilty in the future if they didn’t buy green products, and 84% of them chose fair trade products. But when they were asked directly, “How can you enjoy a cup of tea knowing that the people who make it are not being treated fairly?” they got angry, upset, or irritable, and only 40% chose the fair trade option. In fact, a lot of other research confirms that getting people to feel a moderate amount of guilt, sadness, or fear is more effective than trying to get them to feel a strong emotion. This study suggests that charity or cause appeals that use very emotional images, like clear pictures of hurt children, may not be as effective as ones that don’t try so hard.
The Reasonable Case
In 2010, Unilever started a campaign to show that all of its palm oil is grown in a sustainable way, even though some palm oil harvesting destroys rain forests. On a picture of a rain forest, the words “What you buy at the grocery store can change the world… small actions, big difference” were written. Researchers have known for decades that people are unlikely to do something unless they have a sense of self-efficacy, or confidence that what they do will make a difference. This is what the company was using. So, one important part of marketing a product that is good for the environment is telling people how it will affect the environment.
Even though information about sustainable behaviours and how they affect the world can be convincing, how that information is presented is very important, especially for products that cost a lot up front but don’t pay off for a while. One of us (Hardisty) did research that showed most people who buy appliances or electronics don’t think about how energy efficient they are, and even if they do, they care more about the price than how much energy they will save in the future. In a field study at a chain of drugstores, however, putting the “10-year dollar cost” of energy on each product made people buy 48% more energy-efficient products. Such labels are effective for three reasons: they make the future effects more clear; they put the information in terms of dollars (which consumers care about) rather than energy savings (which they often don’t); and they increase the energy costs by ten times.
Loss aversion, which is what psychologists call the tendency for people to prefer avoiding losses over making equal gains, can help marketers frame choices by letting people know what’s at stake. For example, photos that show how glaciers have shrunk can be a powerful way to show how climate change has hurt the environment. White and her colleagues Rhiannon MacDonnell and Darren Dahl found that in the context of residential recycling, a loss-framed message like “Think about what will be lost in our community if we don’t keep recycling” works best when it’s combined with specific details about the behaviour, like when to put out the recycling cart, what materials can be recycled, and so on. This is because people who think in terms of losses tend to want clear ways to solve a problem.
Five Ways To Act In A Way That Will Last
There are many ways to get consumers to choose products and services that are good for them.
Make Use Of Social Influence
- Link the behaviour you want to see to relevant social norms.
- Demonstrate that others are doing the same thing.
- Make the behaviour public.
- Associating good things with the behaviour.
- Encourage social groups to compete in a healthy way.
Shape Good Habits
- Make sustainable behaviour the default.
- Use prompts and feedback to create positive habits.
- use incentives in the right way.
- introduce sustainable behaviours during major life changes.
Use The “Domino Effect”
- Make the first sustainable action hard.
- Get people to make real promises to change their behavior.
- Don’t let consumers show they are “good people” with an initial token act.
Choose If You Want To Talk To Your Heart Or Your Head
- Feelings of hope and pride can be used.
- Feelings of guilt can be subtly triggered.
- Make your messages about what can be lost.
- Give specific information and talk about how it affects the area.
Encourage Experiences Over Ownership
- Think about business models that offer experiences instead of material goods.
- Think about how your products can be used again after the customer is done with them.
Messages that focus on local effects and local points of reference are also very powerful. So, New York City’s recent campaign to get people to throw away less trash showed that all the trash the city throws away in one day could fill the Empire State Building. Messages that talk about the real effects of long-term changes in consumer behaviour can also be effective. Tide wants people to take the Clean Pledge and wash their clothes in cold water. This is a promise from the consumer, and the campaign makes clear what will happen if they don’t follow through. For example, “Switching to cold water for a year can save enough energy to charge your phone for a lifetime.” Another way to get people to support a brand or a cause is to give them something they can hold in their hands and report on the results. For instance, 4 Oceans tells customers that for every upcycled bracelet they buy, one pound of trash will be taken out of the ocean.
Experiences Are Better Than Things
Along with trying to change how people act, some businesses have found success with business models that make it seem like people are more open to green options. In the “experience economy,” companies sell experiences instead of physical goods. For example, Honeyfund lets people who want to give the bride and groom a gift skip the standard wedding gift registries full of typical household items and instead contribute to their destination honeymoon, gourmet dinner, or other fun adventure. Tinggly, whose slogan is “Give stories, not stuff,” also lets people give experiences as gifts instead of things. Research shows that giving an experience makes both the giver and the receiver happier, strengthens personal connections, and creates more positive memories.
The “sharing economy” is also doing well. In fact, some of the best growth models in the past few years have been businesses that don’t make or sell new products or services but instead make it easier for people to use ones that already exist. This usually means a much smaller impact on the environment. There are now businesses that let people share and borrow everything from clothes and accessories (Rent the Runway and Bag Borrow or Steal) to cars (Zipcar and Car2Go), vacation rentals (Airbnb), and even tractors in Africa (on-demand tractors) (Hello Tractor). But sharing services can make people choose the easy option (like an Uber or Lyft ride) over one that is better for the environment, like walking, biking, or taking the bus. So, it’s important to think carefully about how the service a company provides will affect how customers act in the long run. Lyft has responded to this concern by agreeing to offset its operations globally “through the direct funding of emission mitigation efforts, including the reduction of emissions in the automotive manufacturing process, renewable energy programmes, forestry projects, and the capture of emissions from landfills.” This will result in carbon-neutral rides for everyone.
Other businesses have won customers over by saying they will recycle items after they are used. Both Eileen Fisher and Patagonia want their customers to buy high-quality clothing, wear it as long as possible, and then send it back to the company so it can be fixed up and sold again. So, one way to get people to act in ways that are good for the environment is to include elements of sustainability in how products are used and then thrown away.
Making Sustainability Resonate
Even though sustainable business practises are becoming more popular, companies still try to tell customers how sustainable their brands are in a way that makes the brand more relevant, grows market share, and encourages a shift toward a culture of sustainable living. We’ve given you a list of tools that can help, all of which are based on behavioural science. We suggest that companies try to figure out what their target market wants and needs, as well as the challenges and benefits of getting people to change their behaviour, and then make their strategies fit those needs. We also suggest doing pilot A/B tests to find out which strategies work best.
Using marketing basics to connect customers with a brand’s mission, showing benefits that go beyond traditional options, and making sustainability irresistible will be key challenges for businesses in the coming decades. Smart business will become a sustainable business as more and more people succeed at it.