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Change Consumer Behavior by Sweetening the Sustainability Pill

The following post is in partnership with Ethical Corporation in support of the upcoming Responsible Business Summit in New York.  For an in depth look at the summit covering supply chain management and corporate/NGO partnerships visit this link.

Corporate efforts to encourage more sustainable consumer behaviour should concentrate on making it easy for their customers to change

In 2010, consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble set itself an ambitious goal: by 2020, 70 percent of washing machine loads worldwide will be done in cold water. P&G’s big rival, Unilever, adopted a similar target, though it was formulated in a slightly different way. It said it would encourage consumers “to wash at lower temperatures and at the correct dosage in 70 percent of machine washes by 2020.”

Meeting these goals would result in a huge sustainability payoff: energy savings and thus less burning of fossil fuels, and lower electricity bills for consumers. As the two companies own some of the world’s leading laundry brands – among them Ariel, Persil, Surf and Tide – the impact could be substantial.

But the goals have required a huge behavioural shift away from the notion that hot water is always better for getting clothes clean, and towards acceptance of a different way of doing things. The companies have exercised an extensive influence over consumer behaviour in order to effect the change.

This raises two questions:

How can such a shift be brought about, and why would the companies want to commit themselves to such an ambitious goal when consumers can be fickle and resistant to change? After all, companies can control their own operations, producing fully recyclable products for example, but should they be held responsible if the consumer chooses to dump that product somewhere where it will not be recycled?

In terms of the “how," Peter White, Director of Global Sustainability for P&G, says the company has experience from the Ariel “Turn to 30” campaign. This arose from a 2002 life-cycle carbon footprint assessment of P&G products that showed a “huge peak in the graph” related to the energy people use in their homes to wash their clothes, White says.

P&G calculated that by reducing the washing temperature to 30C, a per-wash energy saving of up to 60 percent could be achieved. The Turn to 30 campaign set out to persuade consumers, through print, television and other media channels, that not only would they benefit from energy savings, but they would not have to compromise on the cleanliness of their clothes, and in fact their clothes might last longer if not subjected to unnecessarily high temperatures.

Sustainability success

The Turn to 30 campaign is now cited as a sustainability success. In 2002, fewer than 3 percent of washes were done at 30C. The rate is now more than 32 percent. “Lower temperature washing is a win-win-win,” White says.

Much of the print advertising for the campaign focused on the environmental message, with the strapline that consumers should turn to 30 “and help keep the world’s temperature down.” But the evidence suggests that appealing to consumers’ better side produces limited results.

White says that about 10-15 percent of consumers are very green aware and “are prepared to pay more” for more sustainable products. For another 15 percent, the call to save the planet “totally passes them by.” In the middle is the “sustainable mainstream,” consumers who will choose greener products, but only if it is made easy for them. Primarily, this means they will not pay a premium.

Amanda Long, chief executive of Corporate Culture, a social marketing agency, agrees, though she puts the “sustainable keenies” at a narrow 5 percent of consumers. “There is a common view among companies that consumers do care, but they are too busy to worry about the detail,” she says. “The vast majority [of consumers] will make an ethical choice assuming that price and quality are equal. Most people are not prepared to pay more.”

White says the most successful advertising for the Turn to 30 campaign emphasised the savings consumers could make. In Britain, Ariel users were advised that they could save enough energy to light up a village. In the United States, customers were told they could save $64 a year meaning “essentially the detergent is for free.”

P&G in principle can use the same message when encouraging all consumers to wash their clothes in colder water: the same result at a lower price. “The key with the messaging is convincing people it will work,” says White.

The ethics turn-off

Timothy Devinney, a professor from the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, and co-author of The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, says the top tip for any company seeking to change consumer behaviour in the direction of greater sustainability is “not to focus on the ethics.”

An ethical appeal might work in specific circumstances because “you can always get a niche of people to do things,” he says. But the main issue, at least in environmental sustainability terms, is efficiency. If companies progressively improve their products so that they consume less resources and create less waste, while not changing in price, consumers will happily buy in.

“You have to focus on meeting the environmental need while not causing any compromise at all in the functionality of the product,” Devinney says. Companies should focus “not on the consumer side, but on the production side.” He adds that, because of the money it saves, “for companies, environmental sustainability is a no-brainer. Any good manager would want to be environmentally sustainable.”

Amanda Long says that to change behaviour, companies “need to focus the benefits on what is most relevant for the consumer, not the sustainable outcome, or at least not only the sustainable outcome”. The companies “best placed to deliver a solution” are those that understand their customers’ needs well, and develop products to meet those needs, but “with a recognition that there are resource, emission and social impact considerations to take into account.”

Water worries

An illustration of the environmental limits on consumption and the need to change behaviour is the anticipated hosepipe ban due to be enforced this spring and summer in much of southern and eastern England, an area in the midst of a long-term drought. Water companies are keenly aware of the need to conserve resources and cut consumption. A hosepipe ban involves a mandatory behavioural change, but water companies are taking many steps to persuade people to reduce their water use voluntarily.

John Clare, media manager at Anglian Water, the utility covering much of central and eastern England, says that “demand management really does work,” and should be preferred over high-cost engineering schemes to keep the water flowing. For British water companies, the switch from flat-rate charging to water metering is key, because households with meters use on average 15 percent less water, Clare says.

Demand management in Anglian Water’s area means that although the population has increased by a fifth in two decades, the volume of water supplied has not changed.

Anglian Water runs the Love every drop campaign to encourage water conservation. Part of this is the offer of water savings kits to households, including various converters and widgets that reduce water consumed though toilets, showers and taps. This is promoted through standard advertising channels and requires consumers to apply for the free kit. In common with the Turn to 30 campaign, the emphasis is not on sustainability, but on saving money.

“Customers say they like, and are more likely to respond to, communications which contain simple messages, that tell them what we are doing and that make it easy for them to take action,” Clare says. “Generally, people understand the issues and the need for action. They tell us they like the partnership approach – they want to see that we are doing our bit too.”

In the vanguard

In Anglian Water’s case, the company’s interest in changing its consumers’ behaviour is clear. But another water conservation effort, a campaign by Unilever to get people to spend less time in the shower, seems to stretch the notion of a company’s responsibility for its products. People shower using Unilever brands, but what connection does this have with the amount of water they use?

As a basis for action, Unilever carried out a study using sensors in showers. It found for example that the average shower lasts for eight minutes, while eight-minute power showers use twice as much energy and water as a bath. Many people also shower in water that is hotter than necessary.

Unilever says it will use the findings to encourage shorter showers, or use of low-flow shower heads, but has not yet come forward with a detailed plan for changing the behaviour of consumers. The company adds that its researchers will “use the insights to design new products and other solutions to help consumers save money by conserving energy and water.”

Corporate Culture’s Long says the main reason for companies taking such action is “creating sustainable markets for themselves and being the lead brand in that market.” Her view is echoed by Peter White of P&G, in relation to its cold-water washing goal. “If we are the company that provides the best low-temperature wash, we will stay ahead of the market,” he says.

White adds another point about behavioural change that could be taken into account by campaigners and policymakers, whose messages about issues such as climate change are often gloomy and emphasise potentially highly disruptive future change. Messages about sustainability should not be “about frightening people,” he says, because they “tend to shut off.”

Instead, behavioural change requires a “positive vision of where you are headed to,” focused on quality of life. “It’s much easier to get people to change if they want to,” White says. “People are prepared to make changes but if you make it easy for them, they will make bigger changes and make them faster.”

Behaviour changes when everyone's a winner

If you want to learn more about how companies can change consumer behaviour for the good, then join us on June 28-29th in London for the Responsible Business Summit, New York.

3p Contributor

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