It goes without saying that if we are able to cultivate a sustainable future for planet earth and mankind, then changes have to be made by everyone: politicians, businesses and the public. But, in fact, that third group – us – is perhaps the most difficult to convince.
Small lifestyle changes by the more than 6 billion inhabitants of our green planet – from slight tweaks in diet, to recycling goods properly – will have the biggest impact. Even if it was the only richest billion making those changes the impact would be vast. Yet the effect will only be significant if meaningful and long-lasting behavioural change occurs. A green minority will always make those tweaks, but how do you make it the norm for everyone?
I’ve spent my summer interning at Unilever in London, a company which through their Sustainable Living Plan, is trying to do business differently – quite a claim from the world’s third largest FMCG company. The plan is to double the size of the business by 2020 but in doing that to halve the company’s environmental impact, sourcing 100% of raw materials sustainably and improving the health of a billion people. Ambitious, to say the least.
While creating the plan analysis of the entire supply chain, from extraction to consumption, revealed that the largest part of the environmental impact came from when consumers actually use Unilever’s products: soaps, fabric detergents and the like.
In a published document called ‘Inspiring Sustainable Living: Five Levers for Change’, CEO Paul Polman wrote poignantly, “Creating a sustainable future will require fundamental changes in attitude and behaviour across society. Governments and industry will have to change but so too will individual citizens.”
Obviously Unilever has a vested interest as they’re trying to sell products to consumers and their sustainable nature is part of their marketing strategy. But let’s take the point generally. How do we go about making consumers change their behaviour? And if you start sending out messages, why is it so hard to make them stick?
While taking a quick shower and trying to keep it to a short length, my mind jumped to a thought. How does this individual shower link to the the world’s water usage and, eventually, to the planet’s future? The link is so distant that it fades into irrelevance. The same disconnect applies to every small change we can make, from recycling kitchen waste to taking extra plastic bags at the supermarket.
It’s just the seed of an idea that I’d like to explore further, but building the link between each individual action and the resultant environmental impact might hold the key to communicating behavioural changes. Of course then you have to make that change stick, but effective communication has to come first.
If you ask a consumer to bring their own bags to a supermarket because of the terrible waste that goes into landfill, they won’t do it. It’s simply far more convenient to take four or five new plastic carrier bags from the store on each shopping trip. The consumer responds, “What difference does it make?”
A vague notion of plastic bags being sinful is not going to make people change. But if they understood that by not using your own bags, you personally contribute a particular number of tonnes of waste to landfill, that hangs around for a particular number of years blotting your landscape, and then how that looks amplified globally, then maybe we might see some greater movement.
When communicating calls for behavioural change, the disconnect has to remedied. So how much water are you actually going to save by taking a five minute shower and what does that mean for the planet? And how much energy are you actually saving by washing at 30 degrees and how will that help the world? Communications need to be directly relevant and fully contextualised, trying to build the link between that one particular action and its global impact.