Key Takeaway: Corporate and policy leaders can encourage consumers to SHIFT their behaviors towards sustainability using this simple framework.
Chicago, May 22, 2019 — Researchers from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia recently published a paper in the Journal of Marketing that shows how companies and policy makers can help consumers change wasteful and environmentally damaging behaviors into more eco-friendly actions.
The study forthcoming in the May issue of the Journal of Marketing titled “How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework” is authored by Katherine White, Rishad Habib, and David J. Hardisty.
We live in a consumption economy. Both individual and corporate consumption harms the environment with excessive meat consumption, plastic packaging, and careless use of energy and other resources. Commercial building energy waste is accelerating climate change. We are fast spoiling our natural environment, which will have consequences for this and future generations.
Clearly, it behooves researchers, policy makers, and government and corporate leaders to help consumers rethink and change their behaviors. However, changing entrenched behavior is hard and harder still to scale. This research provides a psychological framework that leaders can use to foster sustainable behavior. Represented by the acronym SHIFT, the framework highlights five routes to accomplishing the goal of shifting consumer behaviors. “Our study demonstrates that consumers are more inclined to engage in pro-environmental behaviors when they receive a message or are in a context that leverages the following psychological factors: social influence, habit, individual self, feelings and cognition, and tangibility,” said White.
What are these SHIFT factors?
- Social influence: Social factors are some of the most influential in terms of effecting sustainable consumer behavior change. Using facets of social influence—social norms, social identities, and social desirability—can shift consumers to be more sustainable.
- Habits: Habits refer to behaviors that have become automatic over time. Some habits are harmful to the environment; others are beneficial. Interventions that break repetition, such as discontinuity and penalties, can disrupt bad habits. Actions and policies that encourage repetition can strengthen or form positive habits.
- Individual self: Factors linked to how individuals perceive themselves can have a powerful influence on consumption behaviors. Concepts such as self-interest, self-consistency, and self-efficacy contribute to the effectiveness of sustainability efforts.
- Feelings and cognition: Negative emotions can lead to damaging consumption. Positive emotions can lead to pro-environmental behaviors.
- Tangibility: Sustainable consumer behaviors involve putting aside immediate and proximal individual interests to prioritize outcomes that are abstract, as well as focused on others and the future. Thus, sustainable actions and outcomes can seem low in tangibility. Solutions to the tangibility problem include communicating clear, concrete, and local impacts of both unsustainable and sustainable actions.
Key challenges that make sustainable consumption distinct from typical consumer behavior are the self-other trade-off, the long-time horizon, the requirement of collective action, the problem of abstractness, and the need to replace automatic with controlled processes. Habib and Hardisty explain, “We examine each of these challenges to sustainable consumer behavior change through the lens of our SHIFT framework. No single route to behavior change works ‘best.’ We suggest that practitioners and policy makers first understand the specific behavior to be changed, the context in which the behavior will occur, the intended target of the intervention, and the barriers (and benefits) associated with the behavior. Combining strategies often can accomplish goals better than one strategy alone.”
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