Do I Care about the Environment? You Tell Me

by | Oct 31, 2011

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 ( 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

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