Ted Howes, Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Insight is a powerful tool for understanding sustainability and behavior. I never stop being amazed about how people see sustainability and how they make decisions that do (or don’t) take sustainability into account. I always learn how to better understand and communicate about sustainability when I talk with people and hear about how they struggle to make better decisions.

Recently, my colleague Joyce Sood and I went out to explore how people in San Francisco are connecting with the notion of sustainable consumption. We came out of the experience with some useful insights on how to connect sustainability to people’s needs. Here are some highlights:

Sustainability is still an unknown. While it’s a buzzword, people don’t have ready (or easy) definitions for sustainability. For some people, it is a factor in how they make decisions but cost is still a bigger driver, and people struggle to reconcile the two. How might we expand the conversation with people to encompass the true cost of ownership or lifecycle cost? How might we use value as a way to get people away from the price fixation? Can we create products with a more robust use phase of the lifecycle or start to promulgate less is more— fewer, more high quality things in people’s lives, for example. By celebrating value over cost, people are able to attach more relevant personal stories around the objects in their lives rather than just viewing them as disposable objects.

People struggle with how sustainability is personally relevant. A classic way people prioritize acting on sustainability is through the lens of what’s in, on, or around them. This approach engages fundamental egocentric drivers, like health, wellness, and food. Strictly following clearly resonant drivers may mean missing some associated unmet needs that can be equally powerful and more impactful than direct messages on sustainability. For example, the traditional sustainability message on driving would get caught up on fuel efficiency, however, the man in the clip above who combines car trips does so to save time and reduce the headaches of driving, not directly, solely, or primarily for sustainability reasons.

Informing people on sustainability issues requires myriad approaches, and customization is required.  While one person looks to educational pamphlets, another finds that her friends’ input helps support better decision-making. What is clear though, is that trust in existing systems is compromised. 

Labels used to be a great tool for understanding product level sustainability attributes, but with their proliferation came the devaluing of labels in conferring meaningful sustainability information. This is further emphasized by the man who proclaims, “I don’t use anything to make sustainability decisions.” This means that products and services need to attach to personal drivers to get past the noise of the label, and we need to provide people with better information, not just data. The sustainability story is crying out for simplicity. We’ve come from a point of view that “more information is better” but the reality is that people need information that’s curated, not a list.

Going out and talking to people provides insight into people’s unmet needs. Translating those insights into action through innovative solutions around emotionally resonant drivers can help people better engage with sustainable consumption, creating a greater impact.

So go out and talk to some people. Surface those opportunities to better design and communicate sustainability for people.

View the full video on sustainable consumption.

Ted Howes is chairing the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Sustainable Consumption this week in Dubai, and will share insights from the Forum in next week’s blog.