Sustainable consumption and behavioural change

Social scientists suggest 75% of a private individual’s direct resource consumption can be linked to everyday practices associated with either mobility, eating and drinking or household water and energy. But these very fundamental everyday practices pose a knotty problem for sustainability advocates, being deep-rooted and habitual, and therefore particularly difficult to change.

The latest thinking suggests ingrained habits and practices can be effectively tackled and transformed through cleverly targeted messages establishing new, more sustainable social norms.

A methodical approach can be aided by considering three key areas: individual, social, and material. The levers for direct influence on individuals can be further broken down as personal values, knowledge, cost vs. benefit, emotions and skills. Everyday habitual practices are typically driven by socially-established norms or meanings, social learning and the examples of peers or leaders, so the social arena offers significant potential for influence. Finally, material changes can be made to product design, delivery methods, technologies and infrastructure to increase efficiency, edit choice, prompt new behavior and reinforce messages. And ‘choice architecture’ like a thermostat or timer can be supplied to support the required change in behaviour. The most successful initiatives blend all these approaches.

For example, the water board of Durham, Ontario, after an information campaign advocating less frequent garden-watering had limited impact, were able to achieve a 54% reduction in water consumption by broadening their approach. They supplied choice architecture, in this case water gauges and reminder signs for taps, using the individual’s domestic infrastructure to deliver their message. They applied social pressure/inspiration in the form of door-to-door visits from ‘community champions’ soliciting personal pledges to water only on alternate days. As well as achieving a permanent re-education of householders with a significant environmental impact, creating accepted behaviour now backed up by local bye-laws, Durham was able to save public money. The $80,000 they spent is a mere 20% of what it would have cost to expand the water infrastructure to meet the existing demand.

Influence on the individual can be boosted by a shift from directly environmental messages to highlighting the convenience and potential health benefits of the new behaviour. People are particularly receptive to this type of wellbeing or convenience message when already making significant life changes, such as moving house, retiring or having a baby. Targeted messaging balancing emotion, humour and indulgence with useful information can be particularly potent at such times.

Offering life skills and an opportunity to build practical capabilities has a strong appeal. The UK’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign by non-profit WRAP, for example, uses menu planners and a smartphone app to back up its waste-reduction message. Free, cascaded training also supplies useful, life-enriching skills while tapping into the influence of peers on attitudes. In this example the resulting conservation of global resources was secondary to emotional messages about appreciating food and the practical and financial benefits for the individual. Yet the outcome was a 21% reduction in food waste estimated to have saved consumers £3.3bn and local councils around £85 million in 2012 alone.

The powerful impact peers can have was seen in Brazil’s 2009 ‘pee in the shower’ campaign, aimed at conserving the water used to flush a toilet. A quirky animated film discreetly demonstrating the act while stressing inclusiveness, with fun examples of the various individuals comprising the “everyone” the campaign was aimed at, quickly gained worldwide social-media traction and an estimated $40m-worth of free exposure as a result of its humorous appeal. It’s message has since been echoed in many local campaigns across the globe. Japan’s successful Cool-Biz campaign, asking businesses to cut the electricity they consume for office air conditioning and make associated adjustments to dress codes, are publicised through fashion shows and gained traction by stimulating playful debate about what might be considered acceptable work attire. The resulting cultural shift spread to Korea and the campaign has been adopted by the UN.

Quantifying peer pressure can be extremely useful. Sociologists suggest benchmarking can have more impact on conservation behaviour even than opportunities to save money. Virginia-based OPower, with clients like San Francisco’s Pacific Gas and Electric, is using the personalized consumption data from smart meters to prod consumers into cutting their electricity consumption, and a Facebook app to stimulate rivalry. Social visibility can also be exploited ‘in real life’. In Nova Scotia, for example, a backyard composting scheme has successfully tapped into the impulse to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.

One of the most powerful tools within the hands of businesses and governments is choice editing. New products like Comfort’s One Rinse fabric conditioner are specifically designed for greater efficiency, and can be positioned in shopping aisles in a way that suggests they are normal, rather than niche, products. Label instructions reinforce the change in behaviour they allow. While manufacturers will tend to phase out the alternatives in response to changing buying patterns, government and retailers can opt to sell only the more sustainable type of product. Similarly, all washing machines could be designed to default to the recommended 30°c wash.

While the potential for effecting change by appealing to people’s higher principles may have been all-but exhausted, the scope for shifting these ingrained, thoughtless behaviours through more sophisticated strategies is vast.  We can increase the individual’s drive to change by inspiring emotions and promoting the direct individual benefits while providing the necessary tools and skills. We can use peer benchmarking to tap into social motivation and social learning to reshape accepted norms. And we can make material changes, editing choices, designing products to make it easy and providing choice architecture, building in triggers and nudges where relevant.

Most potently, we can apply an integrated approach making sure we exploit every possible angle of influence.

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