Encouraging Customers towards More Sustainable System Behaviors

by | Apr 5, 2012

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote that the answer to the sustainability conundrum is not, cannot be, to sell your car and bike the twenty miles to work each day, or to remember your cloth rucksack every time you venture out to your local butcher and grocer. Eventually society may go in this direction, but it must be by free economic choice, not by directive. I was specifically referring to my inability to remember reusable bags far enough in advance of heading to the grocery store, despite being a “sustainability guy.” Yet, though I remain as forgetful about most things, I now nearly always remember my cloth bags. What changed, causing me to make a different free economic choice?

Previously, I would use cloth bags in the exact same way as plastic bags—a simple substitution at the time of checkout. The only thing incentivizing me to bring my cloth bags was my sense of green guilt; and it had to be strong enough that I felt it an hour before the experience for me to prepare.

Today my grocery shopping experience is different. My local supermarket has introduced a self-scanning system, where I carry around a handheld scanner to zap the barcodes of the items I buy and load the items directly into the bags in my cart. At the register, the scanned barcodes are uploaded to the register—no need to take the items out again. Further, the cashier gives me 5 cents off for every reusable bag I bring.

Let’s examine this new system. First, since I now pack my own bags, I arrange them in the way I want to bring them home—produce goes into my thick canvas sack from local farm Land’s Sake, meat into a sturdy polyester bag, items bound for the bathroom in their own separate bag. I’ve taken ownership of this part of the food-buying process, which now begins immediately when I enter the store, and is much more personalized.

Second, the store recognizes that the dematerialization of the service of selling food saves the store money, and they pass this savings on to the consumer in order to incentivize the behavior. It’s no longer just my green guilt that’s driving me to help the store save money and prevent environmental impacts. Our incentives are aligned.

The point of this little parable is that in order to change a system towards more sustainable behavior, you have to reexamine and improve the system experience for the customer. If we accept the premise that sustainability always yields long-term economic and societal benefits, then there must be a way to link those benefits to the person who performs the sustainable behavior.

There’s another reason why systems thinking is critical here: environmental impacts need to be measured across the whole system, not at the point of the “eco-efficient” substitution. Sticking with the grocery business, another way to discourage the use of plastic grocery bags is to ban them altogether, as the city of San Francisco was the first to do in 2007. While the ban was created to encourage reusable bag usage, many former plastic-toting patrons now substitute paper bags. But environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) has revealed that plastic bags generate 39 percent to 68 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, consume 94 percent less water and 71 percent less energy in manufacture, and produce almost 80 percent less solid waste across the full product lifecycle than their paper cousins, so this ban has actually increased impacts. It’s more effective to create a better system than to try to penalize a “bad” one, lest you lose the game of environmental whack-a-mole.

Hybrid vehicles provide another example of systemic thinking. A common belief is that the environmental impacts of the NiMH battery in a Prius offset the environmental gains of reduced fuel consumption. However, LCAs show that the vast majority of a car’s impacts occur in the use phase, suggesting that it’s actually eco-friendly to scrap a brand-new Hummer and buy a Prius. I even cornered Kevin Butt, the Chief Environmental Officer of Toyota Engineering & Manufacturing North America, at a conference speakers’ dinner to ask him about the battery; Kevin assured me that there is 100 percent recovery of the battery materials at the end of life, further invalidating “conventional” wisdom.

As my academic colleague Professor Ben Linder of Olin College is fond of saying, there is no such thing as a sustainable product, but there may be such a thing as a sustainable product system. Our job as sustainability professionals (and as I’ve previously written, everyone is a sustainability professional) is to identify the systemic impacts using tools like LCA, and build the sustainability incentives into the system as economically preferred behaviors.

For my company, for example, I believe that letting users download our software has less impact than pressing and mailing DVDs (although I haven’t done the LCA to be certain). So, perhaps we can encourage students with access to broadband internet to download our software rather than request a DVD, by emphasizing the instant gratification of getting it now rather than waiting for the DVD in the mail.

How can you encourage your customers toward more sustainable system behaviors?

Asheen Phansey is the North American sustainability leader for Dassault Systèmes® and sustainability product manager for the SolidWorks® brand. He also teaches sustainable business courses as an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Babson College. Dassault Systèmes is the world leader in product lifecycle management (PLM), providing solutions that enable businesses of every size and sector to design, simulate and experience tomorrow’s products. You can learn more about sustainable design tools from DS SolidWorks at www.solidworks.com/sustainability, or reach Asheen at Asheen.Phansey@3ds.com.

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