It seems a reasonable assumption that if people have enough information about an issue, they will change the way they behave – whether that means buying ethically sourced bananas or driving less to tackle climate change. However, this notion has been increasingly challenged.

Studies indicate that consumer behaviour is complex and deeply rooted in habits, emotions, social norms and economic frameworks, which can limit choice. Consequently, knowing about issues such as climate change doesn’t necessarily translate into action. This is the so called “value-action gap”. Some interesting practical experiments have tested this gap by exploring the potential of supply-chain transparency to prompt change among consumers. The results are astonishing: consumers, for example, would still buy products such as chocolate and bananas even after being told at point of sale that the production process was socially and environmentally unsustainable.

The story becomes more fascinating when we start to envision the opportunities to influence consumer behaviour that derive from this evidence base. By developing a clear understanding of how people process information and make decisions, we are able to identify a mix of tools and initiatives to promote change.

The Europe-wide SPREAD Sustainable Lifestyles 2050 Project developed scenarios for sustainable living in the future and designed roadmaps to make them come true, by means of research-based activities and multi-stakeholder dialog events. SPREAD demonstrated that understanding people’s behaviour requires going beyond the image of “consumers” and looking at people as “citizens” – across age and socio-economic groups with varied skills and interests. Recognizing and addressing the barriers and motivations to action for these different groups is a good starting point, and I would like to highlight three of them. First, people tend to accept and choose default options, i.e., buying products that are massively produced, easily accessed in supermarkets and whose purchasing don’t require extra thoughts or efforts from the consumer. Second, people tend to do things that other people are doing. Third, people tend to follow those perceived as authority figures or experts.

To address these key aspects, sustainable consumption initiatives must go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, each of the different groups of consumers and barriers to action present a new opportunity to foster change.

Therefore, making sustainable choices the default can be a powerful approach to change consumer behaviour. Businesses can play an important role here, by improving the added value of sustainability attached to products and services and making them the easiest choice for consumers. Feeding Milan, for example, is an initiative that creates sustainable choices in the food sector. It brings local produce from the regions surrounding Milan to the city centre and makes high-quality, fresh, organic products available through a short supply chain. Additionally, studies have indicated that how information is presented regarding the default option can strongly affect people’s choices.

Engaging people at the local level can also be an effective way to change behaviour, as it taps into the potential of the sense of community. This is a great opportunity for joint action among policy-makers, businesses and civil society organizations to create innovative business models that sustainably meet local needs and aspirations.

Finally, stakeholders can encourage change towards sustainable consumption by setting an example. For businesses, this entails aiming to create shared value, not just profit per se. It is an opportunity for companies to use their expertise to help shape positive visions of sustainable lifestyles by demonstrating how a sustainable house, school or an entire community could look like, based on sustainable products and services. This can be achieved by public exhibitions, open-lab experiments and storytelling.

All these approaches benefit from having the right performance measurements to check that progress is being made.

Influencing the way people behave is notoriously challenging, but with multi-stakeholder engagement and the appropriate tools in place, we can give people the opportunities they need to be able to make more sustainable choices.

Author: Michael Kuhndt, Director of the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production, member of the Global Agenda Council on Sustainable Consumption

The new sustainability award “+ Change Effie”, sponsored by Effie Worldwide in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, is announced today.

Image: Organic bananas in a supermarket in Berlin. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch