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Mary Riddle headshot

The Social Media Secret Behind Sustainable Consumer Behavior Change

A new study commissioned by Unilever shows that influencers have the biggest impact on consumers’ sustainability-related choices. So, how can brands better engage influencers around sustainability, rather than encouraging their viewers to buy and consume?
By Mary Riddle
social media influencer content creator recording a video on a smartphone using a ring light - influencers can encourage sustainable consumer behavior change

A majority of consumers say they're ready to change their lifestyles to help combat climate change, and more people than ever are seeking out information about sustainability on social media. A new study commissioned by Unilever shows that influencers have the biggest impact on consumers’ sustainability-related choices, ahead of documentaries, news articles and governmental campaigns. In fact, 83 percent of all consumers believe that TikTok and Instagram are helpful places to seek out information about sustainability, and 75 percent are more likely to add sustainable behaviors to their lifestyles after viewing social media content about sustainability.

Unilever also specifically examined the efficacy of different content styles in inspiring consumer behavior change around plastic use and food waste, comparing pragmatic and explanatory content with more optimistic and humorous posts.

While the study found that both styles were effective in spurring consumer behavior change, 69 percent of people who viewed the more pragmatic content went on to make lifestyle changes, versus 61 percent of those who watched the more optimistic, humorous content. Branded content was seen as equally engaging and authentic as unbranded content.

“People are finding it hard to make sustainable choices due to a lack of simple, immediate and trustworthy information. Our ambition is to continue to collaborate with our partners to improve the sustainability content produced by our brands and support the creators we work with” said Conny Braams, Unilever’s chief digital and commercial officer, in a statement. 

Leveraging social media to drive consumer behavior change

Unilever partnered with Behavioral Insights Team and 10 sustainability influencers to develop content that aimed to persuade consumers to use less plastic and waste less food. Unilever then showed the content to 6,000 social media users in the U.K., U.S., and Canada.

Three out of four respondents said the content made them more likely to engage in the suggested sustainable behaviors, specifically reusing plastic, buying refillable products, and freezing and reusing leftover food. Also, 72 percent of participants supported companies selling them more sustainable products and services.

“This study is a world-first of its kind and the largest online, controlled trial to test the effect of different styles of social media content," David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioral Insights Team, said in a statement. "The behavior change potential of social media is clear, and the results show that there’s huge opportunity — providing fertile ground for further exploration in this space.” Over 75 percent of respondents said they support content creators encouraging their audiences to behave in more sustainable ways. 

More social change is needed to avert climate catastrophe

Unilever’s study found that social media is an effective tool for sustainable consumer behavior change. However, today's world of social media is more commonly used to increase spending habits and consumption levels, which are key barriers to fighting climate change.

To effectively use their platforms to drive sustainable behaviors, brands and influencers must encourage individual actions and social change. Unilever is leveraging the results from the new study to bolster its sustainability messaging.

“What we hear from consumers is that living sustainably is a constant, overwhelming effort and many feel ‘my act alone won’t count, anyway,’” Braams noted. However, armed with the results of the new study, Unilever is aiming to support content creators and improve their sustainability content to help drive better individual actions across their consumer base.

“Together, we are learning what is all likes and no action versus content that makes sustainable choices simple and preferred,” she said. Instead of contracting with influencers to encourage their viewers to buy and consume, companies can accelerate rates of individual change by communicating with their audiences simple ways to make better choices for the environment.

Image credit: Anna Nekrashevich/Pexels

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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