ANALYSIS: ‘I want to be sustainable, but life gets in the way’

As sustainability managers increasingly focus their efforts upstream of the value chain, unlocking the answers to consumer behavioural change is proving a tough nut to crack.

While aspirational messages around fashion, culture and identity often hit home, environmental issues tend to repel in a way that is counterproductive. Consumers could lead greener lifestyles, but they often choose not to – and this leaves them with a sense of guilt, which can result in mixed messages.

It means for example that we lie about how we make certain purchasing decisions, or how often we recycle. Getting back statistical information that doesn’t stack up is not helpful at the best of times – you certainly can’t build an evidence base on meaningless data. So wider questions are now being asked about the psychologies behind our mindset.

Brand leaders openly admit that customer surveys and consumer-facing campaigns don’t go far enough – the reach and appeal of such initiatives tend to carry a limited lifespan. For a short while we may remember to dutifully to empty our food waste into the kitchen caddy or buy lightweighted water bottles, but as time goes on these well-intentioned actions become less frequent and more random.

“We want to do the right thing, but life gets in the way,” is how Coca-Cola Enterprises recycling director Patrick McGuirk sees it. His company has carried out numerous studies into consumer perceptions and attitudes to waste, even categorising our character type according to where we sit on a green scale – but mostly people tend to be ‘green casuals’, sliding between two extremes.

“The vast majority of us are ‘sometimes recyclers’,” he says. “We need to change that into ‘always recyclers’.” But wrestling with the ‘how’ of that takes some stamina – especially as many consumers are becoming fatigued with climate change issues and what they can do to effect change on a wider scale.

According to Katherine Dooley, a director at global communications firm Burson-Marsteller, people need simple messages combined with reassurance that small steps are good enough to make a difference. “We need to bring that abstract debate down to an individual level,” she believes.

Dr Stewart Barr, an associate professor at Exeter University, agrees with this. He argues that when green messaging is cast within a low carbon framework, it becomes problematic for many people who are confused about the conflicting scientific and political debates around climate change – and are still working out what it means for them on an everyday level.

The good thing, he says, is that most people care about excess packaging and recycling – in theory at least. It’s how these concerns get translated into daily action on a long-term basis that needs figuring out. “We need to understand ways of living and being – how do those practices like recycling evolve and change over time? How do we relate to the waste technologies in our homes?” he questions.

Dr Barr is hoping to find some answers to this conundrum. He will be leading an in-depth research project with Coca-Cola to really probe how we think and act on green consumption and how those habits evolve over time by getting up close and personal with people in their own homes. The project will run for 12 months in two countries – UK and France – and should offer some valuable pointers upon which sustainability managers can build on.

By tapping into our psyche, brands can often work wonders. Nike is adept at this with its inspirational broadcasting around leading more active lifestyles. It’s about igniting inner passion through leadership and imagination, and not just offering sensible advice, such as how to store or freeze food to cut down on plate leftovers.

So while the likes of ASDA, who are working with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) on a behavioural change project through better food planning, have great intentions, one has to question whether such ambitions go far enough. How we consume and the factors that play into making those decisions is the ultimate starting point. And the mind is a great place to begin.

Maxine Perella

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie