Resource efficiency: Should we be socially engineering consumer behaviours?

Businesses must focus on the granularity of consumer needs to drive behaviour change over resource efficiency matters, according to sustainability experts speaking at edie Live this month.

Businesses need to strike a balance between targeting consumers on sustainability issues but not appearing to 'preach' CSR, the edie Live discussion concluded

Businesses need to strike a balance between targeting consumers on sustainability issues but not appearing to 'preach' CSR, the edie Live discussion concluded

During a lively discussion within the Resource Efficiency Theatre, sustainability consultancy Giraffe Innovation’s director Rob Holdway said that British companies often struggle with consumer engagement because they generalise the needs and desires of a diversified consumer base.

Holdway alluded to a typology of seven behaviour types within the UK, with each category exerting varying degrees of support for issues such as waste reduction and resource efficiency.

By gaining an understanding of behavioural complexities when it comes to purchasing a product, businesses can get the sustainability message across and gain consumer support for new models such as take-back schemes and incentivised return, Holdway said.

“We need to socially engineer the whole of the UK to think different,” he said. “It’s about the right messages. Ability and willingness to work depends on a consumer’s propensity to engage on things like food waste, textile waste and transport. Understanding that granulation is really important. Once you understand that, you can target this stuff to engage with those who are not naturally 'waste watchers' or 'green' people.

“You just need to understand where and how to target them. Some people don’t like being pitched that this is a green product. In fact, the customers may not give a crap about it. But it’s just better, it works well, it functions well. And then the business model that supports take-back or incentivised return then follows with that.”

Long-term journey

Holdway's views were echoed later in the day during another session within the Resource Efficiency Theatre. AkzoNobel’s global sustainability manager David Cornish said that businesses should focus on the performance quality of a sustainable product, rather than rely on consumers to display an instinctive preference for products with resource-efficient properties.

The global paint manufacturer launched a product range a couple of years ago that was marketed as solving the issue of waste, but saw its sales perform weakly, Cornish said. Drawing on learnings from that past experience, he highlighted the importance to "sell the benefits, rather than the problem". 

“You need to understand the barriers to change and what holds consumers back from buying these products before you really try and promote them," Cornish said. "When you’re talking about product changes, focus on the benefits - you have to give someone a reason to buy it. Preaching to them that 'you must buy it' just won’t work in the long-term.

“The events of the last year on the wider global scale show that people do not like being preached at by people they consider to be remote from their everyday lives and it ends up being very counter-productive.

"You have to take people on a journey and let them experience it themselves, to prove through their own experience that you can solve what they thought the problem was with the product, and then stress the advantage. Then, people will make the change.”

George Ogleby


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