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Closing the ‘say-do gap’: How businesses can help consumers build sustainable habits

Businesses can make it easier for consumers to build sustainable habits.

Businesses can make it easier for consumers to build sustainable habits. Image:  Anna Tarazevich from Pexels

Bart De Smet
Chairman, Ageas
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Business can play a key role in helping consumers build sustainable habits, scaling change for billions.
  • There remains a huge gap between what consumers say they’d like to do and what they actually do, because it can be hard work to build sustainable habits and make sustainable choices.
  • Businesses that help consumers close the ‘say-do gap’ can make building sustainable habits easy, enjoyable and affordable. These businesses can make an impact while shaping their sector.

Like many following the proceedings at COP26 in Glasgow, I was struck by the repeated refrain that now is the time for urgent action. Against a backdrop of unequivocal warnings from scientists, this is obviously and undoubtedly the case. The 2020s simply must be the decade when governments and businesses act on what many now see as the climate emergency, alongside a range of other environmental and societal challenges.

However, a call for action is not the same as action itself.

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Governments made many of the right noises about the importance of moving to a net-zero future to limit dangerous warming. However, as has been widely reported, the national pledges made are likely to fall far short of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. The problem was not one of ambition but of developing the mechanisms, roadmaps and incentives critical to deliver on key promises and investments. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it: “Collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.”

This gap between ambition and action applies to the private sector as well. More and more companies are committed to tackling sustainability goals. But how can they effect widespread action at scale and with speed?

There is much work being done in how companies manage their own operations, in the investment choices they make, and in how they extend their societal impact. Many are increasingly focusing their attention on the wider impact through their supply chains. While there is still a huge amount to do, all of this is promising and praiseworthy.

However, it seems that a huge source of untapped potential for positive impact is being overlooked; namely, the role that business can play in helping billions of ordinary citizens make more sustainable choices and change habits and behaviours which, collectively, will make a massive contribution to solving the environmental and social challenges we are all facing.

Here's what leaders can keep in mind:

Shaping sustainable habits and choices

1. Remember: Consumer power can scale change

Among the pledges and policies, commitments and coalitions debated at COP26, the role of citizens was given little attention. This is truly perplexing given many of the world’s biggest consumer-facing brands and businesses were attending, each promoting their sustainability credentials. Surely finding ways to direct the actions of billions of consumers, most of whom already want to do the right thing, towards a fairer, more equal and sustainable future is a no-brainer, never mind a massive opportunity to make a truly disproportionate impact and stand out from the crowd?

2. Make sustainable choices easier for consumers

It’s been the case for quite a number of years that research amongst consumers tells us that they want to live more sustainable lives. Ipsos polling in July 2021 revealed that sustainability continues to be a priority: “70% globally say they are more worried about the environment now than a year ago and 72% agree that if ordinary people do not act now to combat climate change, they will be failing future generations.”

Even though the challenges have become more pressing, and of increasing concern to citizens, there remains a huge gap between what consumers say they’d like to do and what they actually do. So, what’s going on?

The simple answer is that they find it hard work to make sustainable choices. Often it feels too complicated, time consuming or expensive to make sustainable choices, particularly when they are living already complex lives, with competing demands on their time, money and attention.


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3. Create incentives to shape sustainable behaviours

It is worth highlighting that there are several shining examples of businesses that see closing this ‘say-do gap’ as an opportunity to make sustainable choices easy, enjoyable and affordable. They see this as a way to accelerate change on the sustainability agenda, but also as a way to help their customers do things they say they want to do but can’t easily.

As an example, Ovo, an energy provider in the UK, has developed a smart charging solution for customers with electric cars that figures out the best time to charge your vehicle. This puts less pressure on the grid – and can reduce costs for consumers. This is a great illustration of a company with a sustainability agenda innovating by building new habits and tapping into something that consumers are already inclined and motivated to do.

4. Leverage existing consumers insights and knowledge for action

The good news about this approach is that it does not rely on deep sustainability expertise across the business; any customer-focused company already has the skills, insights and impulses to put this into action. It starts with finding the needs, desires, pain points and frustrations of their customers and using these insights to innovate solutions, products and new business models. Simply put, looking at your business through the lens of providing sustainable choices will drive value and serve customers as well as creating positive impact.

At Ageas, the insurance firm at which I serve as chairman, we have been exploring how to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable world. We want to identify where we, uniquely, can make an outsized impact, beyond our four walls. The opportunity, as we see it, is to make positive impact at scale by incentivising more sustainable choices and habits among our customers. We can design our products to make sustainable choices easy and affordable. We can increase access to the benefits of insurance through technology, innovation and simple policy wording. We can lead by example and influence change across our industry.

Let me be clear, this is not just the right thing to do; it makes business sense. We see sustainable business practices as a source of strategic and competitive advantage. If we get this right, anticipating and responding to the big social and environmental changes that are shaping our customers’ world, we can build a more resilient business, address unmet customer needs and focus innovation on addressing meaningful issues in people’s lives.

So, for us, making sustainable choices simple, affordable and easy for our customers can narrow the ‘say-do’ gap and is truly a no-brainer.

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