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The elusive green consumer

On the surface, there has seemingly never been a better time to launch a sustainable offering. Consumers — particularly millennials — increasingly say they want brands that embrace purpose and sustainability. Yet a frustrating paradox remains at the heart of green business: Few consumers who report positive attitudes toward eco-friendly products and services follow through with their wallets.

We have been studying how to encourage sustainable consumption for several years, performing our own experiments and reviewing research in marketing, economics and psychology. Much of the research has focused on public interventions by policymakers — but the findings can be harnessed by any organisation that wishes to nudge consumers toward sustainable purchasing and behaviour. Synthesising these insights, we have identified five actions for companies to consider: use social influence, shape good habits, leverage the domino effect, decide whether to talk to the heart or the brain and favour experiences over ownership.

Use social influence: In 2010 the city of Calgary, Alberta, had a problem. It had recently rolled out a programme called grasscycling, which involves residents’ leaving grass clippings to naturally decompose on a lawn after mowing, rather than bagging them to be taken to a landfill. The city had created an informational campaign about the programme, but initial adoption rates were lower than the city had expected. One of us (Katherine White) advised Calgary to try to change residents’ behaviour using “social norms” — informal understandings within a social group about what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

Scores of studies have shown that humans have a strong desire to fit in and will conform to the behaviour of those around them. To leverage this motivation, White and her colleague Bonnie Simpson worked with the city on a large-scale field study in which messages were left on residents’ doors: “Your neighbours are grasscycling. You can too.” Within two weeks this simple intervention resulted in almost twice as much residential grasscycling as did the control condition.

Social influence can be turbocharged in three ways. The first is by simply making sustainable behaviours more evident to others. In some of White’s research, people were asked to choose between an eco-friendly granola bar and a traditional granola bar. The sustainable option was twice as likely to be chosen when others were present than when the choice was made in private.

A second way to increase the impact of social influence is to make people’s commitments to eco-friendly behaviour public. For example, asking hotel guests to signal that they agree to reuse towels by hanging a card on their room door increased towel reuse by 20 percent.

A third approach is to use healthy competition between social groups. In one example, communicating that another group of students was behaving in a positively viewed way made business students more than twice as likely to compost their biodegradable coffee cups.

Shape good habits: Humans are creatures of habit. Often the key to spreading sustainable consumer behaviours is to first break bad habits and then encourage good ones. Three subtle techniques can help shape positive habits: using prompts, providing feedback and offering incentives. Prompts might be text messages reminding people to engage in desired behaviours, such as cycling, jogging or commuting in some other eco-friendly way to work. Prompts work best when they are easy to understand and received where the behaviour will take place and when people are motivated to engage in the behaviour. Feedback sometimes tells people how they performed alone and sometimes compares their performance to that of others. Household energy bills that show how consumers’ usage compares with that of neighbours can encourage energy saving.

Incentives can take any number of forms. In the UK, Coca-Cola has partnered with Merlin Entertainments to offer “reverse vending machines” from which consumers receive half-price entry tickets to theme parks when they recycle their plastic drink bottles. Incentives should be used with care, because if they are removed, the desired behaviour may disappear too.

Leverage the domino effect: One of the benefits of encouraging consumers to form desirable habits is that it can create positive spill over: People like to be consistent, so if they adopt one sustainable behaviour, they are often apt to make other positive changes in the future. After Ikea launched a sustainability initiative called Live Lagom (“lagom” means “the right amount” in Swedish), it studied the sustainability journey in depth among a core group of its customers. The company found that although people may begin with a single step — such as reducing household food waste — they often move on to act in other domains, such as energy conservation.

Decide whether to talk to the heart or the brain: When getting ready to launch or promote a product or a campaign, marketers often have a choice between emotional levers and rational arguments. Either can be effective — but only if certain conditions are met.

The emotional appeal: People are more likely to engage in a behaviour when they derive positive feelings from doing so. This core precept is often overlooked when it comes to sustainability, for which ad campaigns are likely to emphasise disturbing warnings.

Research has found that hope and pride are particularly useful in driving sustainable consumption. Guilt is a more complicated emotional tool. Research by White and colleagues suggests that it can be an effective motivator but should be used carefully.

The rational appeal: Research has shown that people are unlikely to undertake a behaviour unless they have a sense of what researchers call self-efficacy — confidence that their actions will have a meaningful impact. Thus one key to marketing a sustainable product is communicating what effect its use will have on the environment. Although information about sustainable behaviours and their outcomes can be persuasive, how the information is framed is critical, especially for products with high upfront costs and delayed benefits.

Favour experiences over ownership: Along with working to change consumer behaviour, some companies have found success with business models that seemingly make consumers more open to green alternatives.

In the “experience economy,” companies offer experiential options as an alternative to material goods. In addition to the potential sustainability benefit, research shows, giving an experience makes both giver and receiver happier, leads to stronger personal connections and cultivates more-positive memories.

Making sustainability resonate: Using marketing fundamentals to connect consumers with a brand’s purpose, showing benefits over and above conventional options and making sustainability irresistible are central challenges for businesses in the coming decades. As more and more succeed, sustainable business will become smart business.