What We’re Saying

SUSTAINABILITY – HOW PSYCHOLOGY CAN HELP US TALK ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY IN A MORE EFFECTIVE WAY 

18 January 2023

We’ve known for years that climate change is happening and the importance of stopping it to future proof life on our planet. Since the Paris climate accord, the issue of sustainability, in an effort to keep down global temperatures, has shifted from a topic of importance to one of urgency. We see this topic consistently come up in the research and work we do with our clients in MCCP.

The climate crisis has increased in proximity as people witnessed first-hand what the effects of climate change entail, with 2022 seeing wildfires, drought, and flooding across many parts of the world.

Now, even if the world manages to keep global temperatures from only rising 1.5C (as agreed in Paris) new research, published in Science and reported by the Guardian shows that half of the planets glaciers will melt by 2100. None of this paints a particularly positive picture unless drastic action is taken. So then, why, despite 79% of Irish people saying Climate change should be either a ‘very high’ or ‘high’ priority, do they often find it hard to ‘do the right thing’ and be sustainable considering what’s on the line?

There are multiple challenges that need to be overcome: a 2022 sustainability report showed that 52% of UK adults feel that adopting a more sustainable lifestyle is too expensive*, demonstrating that there is an issue around accessibility - how many people can afford a Tesla or Patagonia jacket? That same report also found that 41% of UK adults viewed adopting a sustainable lifestyle as too complicated/difficult* – further compounding the barrier of price.

The same is true for Ireland, across 2022 as the cost-of-living crisis bite, MCCP saw multiple instances of Irish consumers engaging in unsustainable behaviours and practices, from shopping fast fashion to even burning rubbish, all in an effort to offset the rising prices of energy and food.

While accessible solutions from a UX and price perspective are longer-term jobs to be done, what we can change immediately - and with little difficulty - is how we communicate and talk about sustainable practices and products. Using social psychology, we can look to maximise the impact communications can have in affecting positive change. We have outlined some examples and case studies below.

 

THE BYSTANDER EFFECT:

The bystander effect (a proven social psychology theory) tells us that an individual’s likelihood of helping decreases when passive bystanders are present in an emergency. From a communications perspective this means that comms targeting a broad demographic or geographical area are less likely to encourage action and be effective. This happens because those who view the communications don’t feel as compelled to act as the call out is to such a wide audience.

The UK’s NHS faced this problem when they found that their annual ‘Give Blood’ campaign wasn’t delivering the required amount of donations needed to keep blood banks stocked according to Richard Shotton in his book The Choice Factory. Their Solution? Localise communications, instead of addressing the country, they addressed specific areas. Instead of leading with messages like ‘blood stocks across the UK are low’ they said, ‘blood stocks in Brentwood are low.’

This combated the bystander effect, by tightening the target audience meaning those viewing the new communications felt a greater sense of responsibility to act, as the issue felt closer and more related to them. The simple tweak in copy brought about a 10% reduction in cost per donations.

This logic can be applied to sustainability as the city of Copenhagen has shown us. Instead of national campaigns that target broad audiences, could the tailoring of communications, be it by regions, demographic, or any other characteristic – improve the uptake of sustainable behaviours and practices?

Ireland, we know, is at risk of various physical changes due to climate change such as rising sea levels – there is opportunity for Brands, NGO’s and the Government to tackle the bystander effect and increase the proximity of climate change through novel activations and campaigns. Is it time to personalise sustainability to maximise Impact, similar to Government communications during the pandemic: where health & safety advice was tailored to specific activities like shopping, working, public transport, and exercising outdoors.

 

FRAMING:

Nearly all sustainable behaviours are framed as a compromise: don’t eat meat, don’t drive as much, don’t fly as much, don’t buy from fast fashion, keep the thermostat low at home – the list goes on. The challenge is that most of these sustainable behaviours impact our lifestyles and some of our most visceral human needs - e.g., Maslow’s basic physiological and physical needs. When these solutions are presented as compromise to people, the risk of triggering loss-aversion increases, which we know can lead to inertia.

If brands are going to step up and help consumers by making ‘doing the right thing’ easy, then they must avoid framing their products and services as a compromise, making it psychologically easier for people to engage with these new behaviours and products as we move away from the binary choice of ‘lifestyle or sustainability’ to ‘lifestyle and sustainability’.

 

SO WHAT FOR BRANDS:

  • While climate change is a ‘global’ threat, the solution is a personal one. In order to overcome the bystander effect and stop the diffusion of responsibility among the public, climate change needs to increase in proximity and feel a whole lot more local to those being targeted.

Have you made sure your communications are pointed and relevant enough to break the bystander effect and ensure consumers feel a greater sense of personal responsibility to act?

  • Brands need to solve for the individual to solve for the world – products that are framed in a way that negatively impacts consumers lifestyles or asks them to compromise risks triggering loss-aversion and inertia.

Has your brand framed products and service in a positive way, in communications and the mind of the consumer? Are you solving for sustainability AND lifestyle instead of just sustainability?

 

Want to hear more? Feel free to reach out to us at: meetus@mccp.ie 
 

*Source: 2022 Deloite CxO Sustainability report 

 

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