Four Ways to Make Sustainability More Attractive

“Sustainability by stealth, if you will.

So many strategies for addressing the sustainability challenge hinge on a simple, appealing premise: Explain the facts about our unsustainable lifestyles and assume that if people understand those facts, they’ll alter their behavior accordingly. It’s an approach based on two assumptions: that individuals listen to reason, and that individuals then act reasonably. Arm them with knowledge – so goes the logic – and consumers will start making responsible choices, ranging from how long they spend in the shower to which car they choose to buy. In a nutshell, “Belief guides action.”

Clearly, this approach hasn’t been working very well. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.”

Here are four ideas showing promise.

1. Making sustainability personal: Rather than emphasizing abstract and distant ideals, greater leverage is generated when benefits are personal and tangible. Organic products do not sell because they maintain biodiversity, keep water sources unpolluted and enrich topsoil – all of which they do. They sell because people are worried about the potential health consequences of consuming “conventional” agricultural products. The far-off goal of saving the planet is not as effective a sales pitch as the more immediate goal of staying healthy.

2. Making sustainability the default: Behavioral economics convincingly demonstrates that we act much less rationally than we think we do. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have made a convincing case about the importance of nudging behavior towards desired ends. Their argument easily extends to sustainability. A simple example is product placement: making the CFL bulbs the more accessible choice and the incandescent ones just a tiny bit harder to reach.

3. Making sustainability engaging: Humans are innately curious. If presented with opportunities to learn by doing in a way that’s challenging and fun, they will often spend a great deal of time tinkering and optimizing. Microsoft, IBM and others are building upon this very human quality by developing smart metering tools that allow households and businesses to constantly track their energy consumption, identify which machines and devices consume how much energy and when, making energy‐saving an engaging and stimulating activity. The Toyota Prius, as another example, may actually be environmentally friendly more because of its conspicuous energy dashboard than because of its renowned hybrid drive train. This dashboard constantly provides the driver impossible-to-ignore real time information about fuel efficiency. Drive a Prius for a short while and you will very quickly, whether you want to or not, learn about energy-efficient driving behavior.

4. Making sustainability socially appropriate: As social psychologist Robert Cialdini and colleagues have shown in a number of studies, “social proof” strongly influences individual behavior. When we see what our peers are doing, we tend to do the same. Two examples: In one study, hotels informed half their guests that prior customers who had stayed in the same room overwhelmingly opted not to have their towels laundered. Compared to the control group, guests who received this information were much more likely to reuse their towels themselves.