Why behavioural science is key to sustainability

Brands need to understand the reasons why consumers are so bad at being good if they want to move the dial.
15 November 2022
sustainable packaging
n morely
Dr Nicki

Head of Behavioural Science and Innovation Expertise, Kantar Insights, UK

Sam Curtis Lifestream

CEO, Lifestream, UK

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One of the biggest challenges facing brands is how support their consumers in making more sustainable choices and engaging in more sustainable behaviours. 

With delegates at COP 27 currently trying to find ways to reduce the risk of runaway climate change, the good news is that the consumer desire to do the right thing is at an all-time high. People are more aware of sustainability issues and more are motivated to act. But this desire also hides a depressing reality: we might want to but most of us don’t.

While 97% of consumers say they want to be more sustainable, but only 13% are actively changing their behaviour. The value-action gap is massive. If brands really want to make a difference, then they need to make changes that result in actual alterations to behaviour.

We believe there are two moments of truth that brands need to look at:

1. The moment of purchase: How can we get consumers to buy more sustainable products?
2. The moment of disposal: How can we get consumers to dispose of any waste from these products in a more sustainable way?

Strategies for closing the value-action gap

Kantar has partnered with video analytics experts Lifestream to uncovered some surprising truths when it comes to identifying the most effective strategies for maximising real change. 

1. Buying more sustainable products

Consumers are aware that some products are more ‘sustainable’ than others, and we have seen instances of behaviour changing quite dramatically, most notably a 97% decline in plastic bag use in the UK when charges were introduced.

But this is a rare example and required significant government intervention. The reality is that for most day-to-day purchases, sustainability is not top of mind, so behaviour has been very slow to change.

A major reason is how habitual our shopping behaviours are. Worldpanel data reveals that the average household in the UK only buys around 350 products a year out of the 60,000 offered by most supermarkets. 

Very little conscious thought goes into most purchases and unless the products themselves change or we see significant regulatory intervention, our shopping habits tend to be slow to change as well. The idea that shoppers rationally evaluate all products in a category, considering multiple alternatives before making their choice, is a fallacy.

2. Disposing of food waste and plastic packaging responsibly

Consumer disposal habits are far worse than people realise. Lifestream’s video analytics study covering 80 households in the UK found a massive Value Action Gap:

Between 40-60% of households believe they do not waste any food. The reality is that less than 1% of households manage to avoid food waste.
Up to 60% of households believe they ‘always recycle’ hard plastics. The real figure is around 15%.

The huge gap between perception and reality indicates that the systems that consumers are working with to be more sustainable are simply not fit for purpose. The size of this gap represents an enormous commercial and societal opportunity – the problem is the lack of viable solutions.

To make a difference, we need to understand the fuels and frictions that drive sustained behaviour change. Based on a combination of speaking to consumers and observing their behaviour, we have identified three priorities for brands as they plan their sustainability initiatives.

3. No compromise

In the world of sustainability, consumers have two currencies – time and money. To think that consumers will sacrifice either without some benefit is naïve:

24% of consumers highlight cost as the major issue stopping them from buying more sustainable products. Going back to the plastic bag example, we only saw fundamental behaviour change when the sustainable option became cheaper.
Anything requiring consumers to do even a small amount of work is likely to be unsuccessful unless there is a clear benefit. For example, many people will not do the research required to find alternative products and a fifth of consumers say the lack of alternatives is the major friction for them. Additionally, Lifestream’s video analysis told us that only 1.5% of packs that should be washed before being put in mixed recycling are actually washed.
Initiatives are more successful when brands change together. If we look at concentrated washing liquid or concentrated squash, both were quickly replicated by competitors and adopted quickly by consumer. Compressed deodorants didn’t work because the communication was complex but also because no other manufacturers followed Unilever’s lead. 

Before any initiative is launched, ask yourself ‘are we offering something meaningful to the consumer to enable them to make the right choice?’. If the answer is not yes, it’s time to think again.

4. Context is key

Behaviour at both the individual and household levels is highly inconsistent. It’s typically more sustainable when people are more ‘engaged’ in a kitchen activity such as cooking a meal or doing a large clean. The smaller the task, the less likely you are to see good behaviour. 

However, behaviour also slips when routines are disrupted. Sustainable behaviour drops during large social occasions or when people are having stressful or disrupted days.

If your product is designed to be consumed outside of normal activities then the bar that you need to reach to encourage sustainable behaviour becomes higher.

5. Understand the space

The ergonomics of kitchen design have a huge impact on behaviour and have a big effect on which products are bought and how they are used. Stores can also be rearranged to encourage the purchase of more sustainable products. With storage space in kitchens and space on shelf declining, bulkier products with excess packaging are less likely to be bought, for example.

Make sure your product is tested ‘in the wild’. This is especially important if your product or service requires the consumer to take some form of action to be sustainable.

Using sustainability insights to design for success

Initiatives must be meaningful, rewarding but above all, easy for the consumer. To make sure you are making the right decisions, you need to follow these steps:

1. First, identify the behaviour(s) you want to change and be sceptical about how consumers are reporting their current behaviour to you. 
2. In addition to the behaviours, capture the contextual and ergonomic drivers of those behaviours. These will be barriers or enablers to any intervention you are designing.
3. Choose the levers that are most relevant to the behaviour you want to change. If it is a small change to an existing routine, targeted communications can be key. If you are asking people to make a more radical change, then more direct intervention will be needed.
4. Finally, make sure you measure whether your initiative has had the desired impact and take the learnings forward.

There are several brands who have already adopted some of these principles in their consumer work and the impacts can be clearly seen. A couple of our favourites are Loop, which makes zero-waste easy by facilitating re-use through the ‘milkman model’, and Lush, where unpackaged solid products like shampoo and conditioner bars drastically cut down waste.

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