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Can Collaborations Help Change Consumer Behavior?

| Wednesday October 24th, 2012 | 1 Comment

Collaborating and partnering for change is one of the main trends in the green business space. Companies are looking to adopt a collaborative approach, but given the magnitude of the challenges they face, what is the best way to do it effectively?

To answer this question and others related to this topic, Forum for the Future and the Guardian Sustainable Business hosted an event earlier this month in New York for CSR professionals.

Just like last year, the event included two parts – first, a panel chaired by Jo Confino, Executive Editor of the Guardian and chair of Guardian Sustainable Business. The participants were Andrew Kassoy, Co-founder of B Lab, Helen Clarkson, U.S. Director of Forum for the Future, Kim Marotta, VP CSR at MillerCoors and Carrie Brownstein, seafood quality standards coordinator at Whole Foods. The second part included a couple of discussion groups that focused on various topics from building trust in relationships to sustainable value chains.

While last year I mainly wrote about the panel, I decided this year to focus on the discussion group, especially since I participated in one that discussed one of my favorite topics, ‘changing consumer behavior’ – the panal included representatives from two of my favorite companies – Unilever and Recyclebank. It was also a great opportunity to learn couple of interesting lessons on the important role collaboration plays in changing consumer behavior. Here are some of the main issues that came up in the discussion:

Moving from virtual reality to real life

Many of the efforts encouraging people to adopt new sustainable practices take place online, but what happens when people leave virtual reality? Veronica Wilson, strategic planning manager at Recyclebank explained that it’s easy for people to learn about a new practice, but making it normal and part of their everyday routine is the hurdle Recyclebank is up against. We’re trying to make it fun and engaging, easy and rewarding, she explained, but making it a habit is always going to be a challenge.

Creating partnerships to promote behavior change

Recyclebank has become not just a role model for changing consumer behavior in recycling, but also a valuable partner for companies that seek similar change. Another Recyclebank representative explained that the company works with companies like Unilever, SC Johnson and Coca-Cola, serving as a communication platform, helping to get messages out to their consumers – like what to do with your shampoo bottles when you’re done with them, how to save water at the shower, and so on.

For example, Recyclebank has been working with Unilever for three years, helping the company create gamifying experiences, or what they call “learn and earn” for its brands (Dove, Lipton, Suave and others). These online games tell the sustainability story behind each product and incentivize you to play and give points for participation.

Consumer response? Positive!

The response, according to Recyclebank, is very positive. Veronica Wilson explained that its audience is often not super green, but also not deniers  – more comprised of people in the middle that are just trying to make better choices. They’re the ones that are buying Dove or Lipton (as Recyclebank learns from the coupons redeemed) and they’re happy to hear messages from corporations about what they’re doing to act better.

And what about shorter showers?

Can Unilever succeed in getting people to spend a shorter time in the shower so they can save water while the company reduces its carbon footprint? This is maybe one of the toughest challenges, because as Caroline Holtum of the Guardian Sustainable Business pointed out, currently people in developed countries don’t really feel the impact of reduced access to water, and also, the shower is a personal space for many people, so they might get irritated about the idea that a big corporation would try to tell them how much time to spend in there.

Recyclebank is trying to help Unilever with its platform, rewarding people for pledging to do it, doing a lot of post-surveys. They concentrated on asking people if they followed up with their pledge and if not, what was the reason for that, and if they did – did they also share it with family and friends?

But this is just one part of Unilever’s effort. Jonathan Atwood, VP Sustainable Living & Corporate Communications, explained that you need a multi-pronged approach in this case. He gave the example of the tongue-in-cheek showerpooling campaign targeted at 18- to 24-year-olds, which asks them to take a shower with a friend or a stranger to save water. A campaign like this can get the message across without being preachy. Saving water is a multi-faceted, very complex issue, he added, and pointed out a number of difficulties, including the challenge to actually measure the change the company is seeking. At the moment, he summarized, we still don’t have all the answers.

Changing consumer behavior, one step at a time

While the efforts to change consumer behavior are still based on a voluntary approach, there seemed be a consensus around the table that they can still be as effective, if not more, as regulations. As Jonathan Atwood put it – “to me it’s a question of how bold you want to be. It’s the constant managing up that at least is driving our business and I think it’s driving a lot of other businesses.” I don’t think regulation is going to change behavior, he added. I think there’s a better way here and it is to offer people the opportunity to reward companies that they’re doing the right thing. Will people take advantage of this opportunity? We’ll have to wait and see.

[Image credit: Recyclebank]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • Corney Steve

    The “shower with strangers” idea is hilarious. Not that doing so will actually save water, but if it gets the attention of the numbskulls that Axe is geared toward, then so be it. Unlikely they’ll ever actually have the chance to share a shower so might as well associate saving water with desirable fantasy. I love it.