A new study shows that consumers are more likely to engage in eco-friendly behaviors if they learn that it’s a social norm
Despite the hype around consumers wanting brands to be more eco-friendly and offer greener solutions, there remains an intention-action gap when it comes to green consumerism. Research by BBMG and GlobeScan in 2017 found that 65% of consumers said they wanted to purchase sustainable products, yet only 26% actually purchased such products.
A study published in February 2019 in the Journal of Marketing suggests closing this gap may have less to do with the products or services offered, and more about the messaging to consumers. Similar to how saving the environment is a group effort, moving the needle on sustainable consumerism also takes a village.
“Often with these green behaviors, people are uncertain,” says Katherine White, a professor at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business. “They’re like, ‘Well, is it gonna make a difference if I do it? Or should I be doing it? Or what’s the better [action] to do?’ Looking at what other people are doing, looking at those social norms, can give them extra information and make them more likely to do the behavior.”
Look to the Joneses
White, one of the Journal of Marketing study authors, looked at data from residents of Calgary, Alberta, in Canada where a program called “grasscycling” had been introduced. The program asked residents to leave grass clippings to decompose on the lawn after mowing, instead of bagging them to be taken to a landfill. The related informational campaign promoted the environmental benefits—and the plan itself even required less work on the individual’s part. Adoption rates, however, were lower than expected.
“We found when we asked people in interviews, asking them why they wouldn’t do the behavior, they said things around social norms,” White says. “They said things like, ‘Well, no one else is doing it. And what will my neighbors think if I’m doing this weird thing rather than doing what everybody else is doing?’”
The city then changed its communications to promote the normalization of grasscycling. Messages were promoted that read, “Your neighbors are grasscycling. You can too,” and “Most people are finding ways to reduce the materials that are going to the landfill—you can contribute by grasscycling.” White explains that this persuasive language works best when it’s also combined with information about being part of a collective. “Making it about the group, the neighborhood or university level makes people more likely to participate in that behavior,” she says.
In a Harvard Business Review post by White and her colleagues, they also point to studies that found telling online shoppers that others were purchasing eco-friendly items resulted in a 65% boost in making at least one such buy. They also highlighted a study that found telling buffet diners that it was normal to not take too much at once, and acceptable to return for seconds, which decreased food waste by 20.5%.
Promote the Positive Action, Not the Negative
White emphasizes that the positive social norm must be underscored to promote positive change. Pointing to the negative action—for example, communicating figures of how many people don’t recycle in a campaign to boost recycling numbers—actually normalizes the undesirable action.
“Focusing on the desirable norm is absolutely the way to go,” says Kim Borg, a doctoral researcher at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University in Australia. “We often see messaging that draws attention to the scale of a problem, but this can hinder behavior change efforts by telling people that the undesirable behavior is normal. By focusing on the desirable behavior, particularly if you can relate it to groups who are important or close—e.g., friends, family, neighbors—you’re more likely to send a signal that the desirable behavior is normal.”
That’s not to say marketers should fudge the numbers to suggest more people are doing the positive action than is true—there’s no need to lie. In fact, competition can be enough to change behavior. “By and large, most people think that sustainability is a good thing,” White says. “When [a group] learns that another group is doing the behavior well, they actually step up their game and they’re more likely to do the behavior.”
And if the numbers that back a positive behavior’s uptake are low, but rising, White recommends showing dynamic norms. This provides evidence that a positive action or behavior is on the rise by saying, for example, that X number of people were recycling 10 years ago, but that number has shown an X% increase. “Dynamic norms signal that not only is the norm changing but that change is possible, which can help people get over some of their own mental barriers,” Borg says.
Normalize the Behavior in Media
Borg says simply providing information—for example, telling consumers that plastic pollution is a problem—is unlikely to change behaviors. “But media messages can increase the salience of an issue, which can indirectly influence behavior,” she explains. “For example, if plastic pollution is prominent in the media it can stimulate conversations with friends and family about related behaviors, like recycling and reusable alternatives.”
Depending on how the messages are framed, Borg says they could suggest that social norms in wider society are changing. If the use of single-use plastics becomes less common in the media, it could indirectly influence behaviors because people are prone to follow the social rules and avoid social sanctions—especially when the behaviors are public.
Illustration by Bill Murphy.