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Unilever’s New Challenge: Making it Fun to Cut Food Waste

| Wednesday November 14th, 2012 | 4 Comments

If one day there’s going to be an “aha!” moment on how make consumer behavior more sustainable, there’s a good chance it will happen at Unilever. When it comes to changing consumer behavior, Unilever pushes the envelope more than any other company today.

It shouldn’t be too surprising considering the company’s target is to halve its carbon footprint by 2020, and the fact that 68 percent of it comes from consumer use of Unilever’s products. Still it’s interesting to see the creative efforts Unilever makes in this field, from conducting a first of its kind shower study to partnering with Carrotmob to asking people to save water by showerpooling.

This latest effort comes from Unilever UK & Ireland, which is launching a consumer-centric project, titled the Sustain Ability Challenge. Developed in partnership with consultant firm The Futures Company, the project enlisted 12 UK families “to test practical ways to adapt their daily routines in order to reduce their impact on the environment and cut household bills.” The goal is to reduce household waste by 25 percent, while cutting their monthly food bill by 15 percent.

The challenge will first focus on food. Why food? Because food seems to be a win-win opportunity with a potential to save money and benefit the environment at the same time. There’s also evidence that if you can establish such a connection, people will be willing to change their behavior. Fabian Society research, which was supported by Unilever UK & Ireland, found that “more than 60 percent of adults recognize food waste is a problem that needs to be solved. More than half (53 percent) of adults said they would waste less food if it could save them money and 28 percent said they would change their behavior if it was easier to do.”

The challenge will be also connected to another finding. According to research conducted by the Futures Company, 68 percent of UK adults say the main barrier to living a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle is that it costs more. Unilever wants to prove through this challenge that sustainable living can, in fact, help families save money, hoping it will help change the perception of sustainable behavior.

In addition, I think Unilever wants to test its Five Levers of Change in this challenge, the framework it developed to increase “the likelihood of achieving sustained behavior change.” Let’s see, then, what the company might be looking to find out in each of the levers:

Make it understood. Do people know about the behavior, and do they think it is relevant to them? This lever is about raising awareness and encouraging acceptance.

Unilever’s goal: Make participants aware that the average family in the UK is throwing away about $1,080 of food waste each year and help them connect the dots between reducing waste and saving money.

Make it easy. Do people know what to do and feel confident doing it? Can they see it fitting into their lives? This lever is about convenience and confidence.

Unilever’s goal: Help participants address the top three barriers the research highlighted to reducing food waste: food going bad quickly; throwing away leftovers; and preparing too much food, and look for tools that will help participants do it easily and conveniently.

Make it desirable. Will doing this new behavior fit with their actual or aspirational self-image? Does it fit with how they relate to others or want to? This lever is about “self and society” because humans are social animals.

Unilever’s goal: Make food waste reduction an aspirational behavior or link it to a positive self-image, just like it did with its Lifebuoy soap, linking washing hands with soap with being a good mother, which is, as the company explains, a powerful motivator.

Make it rewarding. Do people know when they’re doing the behavior “right?” Do they get some sort of reward? This lever is about demonstrating proof and pay-off.

Unilever’s goal: Show participants an easy way to identify the savings from their efforts to reduce food waste.

Make it a habit. Once people have made a change, what can we do to help them keep doing it? This lever is about reinforcing and reminding, “refreezing” people in their new habits so it becomes unconscious again.

Unilever’s goal: Find how to help participants continue with the new practices they adopted during the challenge.

I’m sure Unilever is going to review the findings of this challenge very thoroughly once it’s over in six months and see how it can apply it to the products it actually focuses on when it comes to changing consumer behavior, such as laundry detergents and shampoos. Now, I do hope this challenge will also follow “the Office” and “Pop Idol” and have an American version. If it does, here are my two cents to Unilever: Make it a reality show and a competition between all the participants with a $1 million prize to the winner. Run it for couple of seasons and with the right participants, you will be see how food waste becomes the right behavior, even in America.

[Image credit: ekornblut, Flickr Creative Commons]

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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  • Dani Glaser

    While I give Unilever a lot of credit for their leadership in sustainability, many (most) of their products contain toxic ingredients. True sustainability will not be achieved until they eliminate these ingredients from their brands.

    • http://GreenSmithConsulting.com Paul Smith

      Dani, I’d have to respectfully disagree with you there. To not consider their efforts truly valid until they’ve reached a level of sustainability throughout every aspect of the company is in my opinion a limiting point of view, one whose prevalence is what causes many brands to either not delve into being more sustainable, or minimize publicity of it. A shame, as the more prevalent it becomes and the greater the number of inspiring examples for others, the bigger the cumulative impact.

      • Dani Glaser

        Paul, I never said that I don’t consider their efforts valid. I truly applaud them for what they are doing, it is very significant. I am also very concerned about human and planetary health. Leadership of a company such as Unilever to eliminate harmful ingredients in their products would benefit everyone.

        • Paul Smith

          Got it, my mistake, agreed. And at the same time, other people’s binary view off a company’s sustainability can be limiting