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Do I Care about the Environment? You Tell Me

Consumer behaviour change. These three words seem to be appearing with increasing frequency within the conversations around sustainability in many if not most businesses today. Even if the broader debate is not shifting to the demand side, it is certainly expanding to the demand side, with all the leading fmcg companies pledging to crack the conundrum. And, as usual, where large advertisers go, the agency world quickly follows, with many communication and marketing firms working hard to fashion processes and parade case studies that show their proficiencies here.

Amongst the myriad voices and opinions, there seem to be two schools of thought emerging. Actually, I imagine there are many more, but increasingly the various approaches cluster around these two polar opposites. On the one hand, there are those who argue we must educate and drive awareness; that this will be enough to engage consumers in more environmentally friendly behaviour. In other words, it’s primarily a question of consumers not knowing the score: if they knew, of course they’d act.

Maybe not. Because on the other hand, there are those who say that no matter how aware we make individuals, it is the very ‘otherness’ of the issues that will halt any intention and action; that at the end of the day, we act in our own, short-term interests, no matter what the commons consequences. In this school, the most appropriate approach to drive behaviour change is to either try and reframe the issues as having a personal impact (such as on the health and wellbeing of you and your family), or to adopt choice editing or influencing strategies, which is the fast-becoming the central strategic plank for organisations such as the WBCSD (I should stress I’m referring to mass-scale behaviour change here, rather than the consumer segments that are the dark, committed, die-hard greens etc).

But with these two positions sketched out, I’d like now to talk about a new online venture, that could well end up having a very interesting position in this debate. The venture is called Green Decisions (www.greendecisions.com)and has been set up by two digital-savvy entrepreneurs from the advertising and marketing worlds (I must also declare that I’ve been involved in a small way. as an advisor). In one sentence, the site allows consumers to source any appliance for their home, where they not only can find the cheapest purchase price, but can also see the total cost of ownership over a number of years, via energy consumption figures, combined with local energy tarrifs. This additional cost allows them to explore the energy efficiency of the product once it is set-up and plugged in. In a natural next step, the site also tells you the amount of carbon that the appliance will create over that period, and the number of trees required to absorb that output. By the way, what is interesting is to see how much similarly-priced products in the same category vary when it comes to energy efficiency.

When the idea was being developed, the founders agreed that the site would not take a pro-environmental stance, but would rather allow consumers to factor-in these considerations, if they wanted to. In other words, they could decide whether it was important to them as an individual, or not. Either way, it was fine by the site. As a result, when searches come back, users see purchase price, total cost and carbon cost across a single row, with the environmental data appearing last.

But what would happen if, in a confirmation email or any follow-up exchange, those data were rearranged? What if the environmental data then appeared first? Might this change the way the consumer interprets their behaviour? Might the original, ‘genuine’ motivations for the decision be pushed out of the way by this apparent environmental motivation? Basic as it may sound, the answer could well be yes. Changing the delivery order of the data could create an alternative label with which to explain that particular action.

Research around this concept of social labeling points us towards a compelling alternative to the schools of thought presented above. By social labeling, we’re referring to the tag society gives a particular behaviour in order to make sense of it. In other words, society interprets the action and tags it  with a motivation – for all to see – that it considers consistent with the behaviour. This means your individual behaviour can carry a social tag independently of the internal tag you may assign it. The big difference, is that the social tag is visible by everyone.

Where this gets interesting, is that these social tags can be applied to make sense of the behaviour, but they don’t need to reflect the original motivation. So choosing to take the train rather than the car could be driven at the individual level by a desire to be able to read and make phone calls on the way. But society can publicly tag this behaviour as being pro-environmental in motivation. And society can applaud that motivation.

Where this research gets even more interesting, is that when a behaviour is tagged – or labelled – in this way, then the consumer is likely to behave next time in keeping with this label. So with our person taking the train – even if their initial motivation was being able to read the paper – with the social label of being pro-environmental for leaving the car at home, they’ll be more likely to approach subsequent decisions with a stronger pro-environmental stance.

This growing body of consumer psychology research is pretty big news, and has a hefty impact on the two schools of thought sketched out earlier.

The impact on the awareness and education approach is that we don’t necessarily need to deliver that hammer blow of bad news, hoping that levels of concern will rise to the point of intervention. Instead, it’s a more intuitionist approach to decision making. And the impact on the second ‘command and control’ school, is that it would appear that our environmental values (or, more broadly, ‘transcendental‘ values) are far for from flatlining in the modern world. Instead, it would appear they just need a little jolt and some gentle support. It seems we do care about the commons after all, or rather we care about others seeing us for supporting the commons in some way.

So back to Green Decisions. If consumers make decisions across any of the criteria featured, but are then recognised for having made decisions on an environmental criterion, will that criterion rise in importance from that point on? With an army of caveats attached, it would appear highly plausible. What’s more, this could be done as simply as re-ordering the data from the search to highlight this detail, once they’ve made a decision.

Of course, it wouldn’t be quite so straightforward, but the evidence so far points to the practice of social labeling as having considerable potential in driving behaviour change. It’s ironic, because in almost all communication firms, the mantra is that behaviour is a product of attitude and intention, so to change behaviour, you have to re-programme attitudes. Yet here, we’ve a model that argues for a 180 degree flip, with attitudes forming as a result of behaviour.

It’s also ironic that depsite being built as purposively non-judgmental when it comes to environmental decision making, Green Decisions and its peers may end up being highly instrumental in untangling at least some of the knotty conundrum that is consumer behaviour change. We secretly hope it does.

Guy Champniss is co-author of ‘Brand Valued: How socially valued brands hold the key to a sustainable future and business success.’ (Wiley & Sons, June 2011). Guy is an independent strategy and brand consultant, and Managing Director of Meltwater Consulting, a London-based boutique brand strategy agency, focusing on sustainability and prosocial consumer behaviour. Please send comments to guy@meltwater-consulting.com.

Guy Champniss
Guy Champniss is co-author of ‘Brand Valued: How socially valued brands hold the key to a sustainable future and business success.’ (Wiley & Sons, June 2011). Guy is an independent strategy and brand consultant, and Managing Director of Meltwater Consulting, a London-based boutique brand strategy agency, focusing on sustainability and prosocial consumer behaviour. Please send comments to guy@meltwater-consulting.com.
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11 thoughts on “Do I Care about the Environment? You Tell Me

  1. Brilliant idea! Have already tweeted about it, shared the hyperlink through email and FB and bookmarked it! Also appreciate your take on changing consumer behaviour. At our training/consulting business, PorterWorks, Inc. (www.porterworks.com) we use a similar strategy. In a sense, we don’t care so much what the motivation is to do the “right” thing as long as people do it. So we find what motivates them and give it a green spin! Great work!

  2. Hi Anna,

    Pleased this rings true with you, and the work you are doing. I think many ‘purists’ push back against the idea of motivations being anything other than a clear concern for the environment, or wider social issues. What I find interesting is that whilst a pragmatic response in the short to medium term, social labelling may well end up being one of the most effective ways to bring about motivation change in the long-term. So it could be effective without the up-front ‘leap’ required of consumers in relating a highly abstract issue to their very practical purchase decision. Thanks again for the comment. Guy

  3. This social labeling concept came up when I was working with a Native American tribe in central California – if people outside the community start labeling them as leaders the more likely they are to see themselves as leaders and begin contributing to leadership efforts. I think the psychology clearly holds some merit, but I’m not so sure about the value of the greendecisions site. A. it’s called “greendecisions”… That really doesn’t hold with the idea of having green motivations be secondary, and isn’t likely to hold mainstream appeal. B. Maybe I’m just being daft (not common for me) but I don’t really get their categories. The only motivating factor seems to be finding the cheapest appliance, etc. but the energy costs don’t tell you energy savings, and the carbon credits are basically valueless and the total price just looks like one big number. It is very interesting that an advertiser and marketer would decide to invest in this type of effort specifically – I think that indicates a lack of knowledge about what is really needed. Social labeling and social norms need to be used in an empowering climate action marketing campaign. Something that can compete with the Geico Gecko for attention.

  4. The problem is not that consumers are not aware — as mentioned re: short-term interests. It’s that they don’t understand the level of impact society makes as a whole, and people in general do not want responsibility. Green Decisions, a for-profit business? I’m aiming at not-for-profit with Care For Earth with marketing tactics used not for selling things like energy efficient appliances, but for reaching out with deeper understanding of the gravity of the problem, first with plastics.

  5. Hi Anna,

    Thanks for your note. I cannot really answer for the mechanics of Green Decisions, but there are a couple of comments I’d like to make in response to your very valid points.

    1. I would imagine Green Decisions is still in an evolving state. It is only just out of beta, so I am sure the creators are working on finding ways to make the data more palatable. That said, I do acknowledge your point regarding name of site.

    2. You mention using social labelling to be empowering. I could not agree more with you. However, in this case, it was the very mechanical nature of just re-ordering data that made me think about the article. I think there is room – indeed a need – for all levers here.


  6. Behavior clearly shapes attitudes. That has been known for a long time. Just think about the psychological ploy of asking a depressed person to smile more often, whether they feel like it or not – quite frequently the patient will later report back that he/she feels less depressed. I’m sure the same effect exists for the type of social feedback that is discussed in the article.

  7. I think you should fix the typo in the first sentence “increasingly frequency.” You either meant “increasingly frequent” or “increasing frequency,” I think.

  8. Hi Doug,

    Yes, you are right. However, the smiling technique you mention here is more a case of ‘affect’ driving a change in mental state. Affect is such an interesting area, and I believe marketers have not fully got to grips with how it can be used more effectively in bringing about behaviour change.

    However, in this particular case, it seems that cognition (the labelling) can also have the same effect. This is is less expected, for the simple reason that most evidence points to us being more ‘in control’ of our cognitive processes, so less likely to adapt our attitudes that are normally considered more hard-wired. But I agree – there is evidence emerging in lots of places that suggests a less than clean – and less than one-way – relationship between attitudes and behaviour.


  9. Very interesting article and site. Thanks, Guy. Given that the site is beta, all impacts are speculative for now, yes?

    I’m interested in advancing the point about behavior coming before attitude in the Animal Protection field. One example is animal control officers who award recognition certificates to people doing things like walking their dogs on the leash (in neighborhoods where this wouldn’t be automatic.)

    The problem is that some people think that people have to buy in to attitude before behavior. For example, they may not think being veg for environmental reasons is “good enough;” you have to care about animals. But this line of social labeling suggests the opportunity in labeling such behaviors as “pro-animal” regardless of motivation.

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