When it Comes to Making Sustainable Choices, What Triggers Change?

Posted by Shaina Kaye on April 16, 2021 at 9:56 AM


To say that a lot is happening in the world to inspire change right now would be an understatement: a call for social justice, an all-out last-ditch effort to gain a sense of normalcy back from the hands of COVID-19, and more momentum than ever before to take action against the effects of climate change and reverse the impact of centuries of environmental damage caused by waste generation, overconsumption, and rampant pollution. 

All around us, we are seeing change happen on a massive scale. But if there’s one thing we know from years of working to trigger individual behavior change, it’s that small choices add up to create impact over time. Choosing to use reusable bags over plastic, switching out a fossil fuel heating system for an electric heat pump, opting to compost instead of trashing food waste, taking the first step to learn about community solar, or even making the effort to purchase clean beauty products over those with potentially harmful and toxic ingredients… all of these choices add up in the long run, even if, at the most individual level, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.

We also know that today’s consumers are clamoring for change. The large majority of them want to make a positive impact and are ready for the brands to which they’ve been loyal to do the same.

But what is the moment that triggers an individual from just thinking about making a change to take action and implement a more sustainable behavior? Is it an emotional catalyst? Is it a terrifying, doom-filled message from a brand that, quite frankly, scares a person out of complacency? Is it hope? Or is it just the confidence that comes from learning more about the benefits of making one choice over the other?

It depends. On the individual, on the need, and of course, the surrounding circumstances. For example, after spending time at home in lockdown following the initial surge of the coronavirus pandemic, our research found 62 percent of homeowners became aware of, or more sensitive to, at least one energy-related issue in their home, with comfort, utility bill costs, and indoor air quality the top-cited issues. Of those surveyed, 40 percent felt that the realizations above were enough of a reason to act and make home energy improvements. 

That same research also found that, in light of the pandemic, how a purchase would affect a consumer or family’s “health and wellbeing” became a priority consideration when making purchasing decisions. This is in stark contrast to purchasing decisions made before the pandemic when health and wellbeing were often secondary or tertiary considerations for consumers. The catalyst of the pandemic ultimately created an opportunity for brands to focus their product or service messaging around emotional and physical reasoning: how it would positively affect the health of the consumer and their families as a way to trigger change. 

Other studies have shown that doom and gloom trigger behavior change, but only if it’s accompanied by a solution or a way out. A 2019 study from the Journal of Business Ethics found that when presented with the negative effects and consequences of using less environmentally friendly products over products that are more sustainable, the negativity triggered a change. The caveat, however, was that brands using a negative approach that also mitigated the effects of anticipated consumer shame were more likely to succeed in triggering behavior change, as opposed to those who did not offer a solution or next step to take.

And sometimes, change does not require a monumental emotional catalyst, altered life circumstances, or negative messaging. Sometimes all it takes to trigger a change to a more sustainable behavior are adjusting social norms. Simply put, if consumers know that others are already doing something, they might be more likely to adhere to what’s considered normal behavior. A study from the Environmental Journal of Psychology found that telling online shoppers that other people were buying eco-friendly products led to a 65% increase in making at least one sustainable purchase.

As a brand looking to make a positive impact and trigger more sustainable behaviors in consumers, the number one takeaway out of all this research is this: get to know your audience. It is not enough to expect that because you believe the product or service you offer is better (for a person, for the environment, for society), that it is enough to get a consumer to make a change. Only you, as a brand, can truly understand your customers’ motivations to act and how those motivations might change over time. By knowing the ins and outs of your customer’s journey in the here and now of 2021, you’ll be better equipped to pave the way for them to act on making healthier, more sustainable, and environmentally friendly choices.

Topics: Customer-Centric Marketing, B Corporation, Research, Climate Change, Sustainability Marketing, Marketing Strategy and Best Practices, Climate and Social Justice