Break the stalemate

Organizations should go beyond pledges and take the lead on creating low-effort behavior change for people. We've reframed how organizations should be thinking about sustainable consumption and identified some of the actions they can (and should) take today.
Right now, there’s a stalemate surrounding whose responsibility it is to solve the climate crisis:
  • People expect organizations to be better and offer better when it comes to sustainability.
  • Organizations have been waiting for more people to demand sustainable products so they can be confident they will reap the benefits of customer loyalty and profit.

Organizations need to break this stalemate.

Organizations can't wait for demand from a demographic of so-called “sustainable consumers”. For a start, we simply don't have the time. And sustainability may never reach a mass market tipping point, so the very thing organizations are waiting for might never happen.

Organizations need to take the lead in making sustainable living achievable for everyone.

To break the stalemate, we need to rethink three outdated beliefs.

01 Belief: Brands can nudge people to close the “say-do gap”.

Reframe: For most people, the “say-do gap” is too wide to close.

People aren’t currently acting on their good intentions—citizens around the world are worried about climate change1 and many say they want to buy from brands that advocate sustainability, but these intentions are not always translating into actions2.
It's not as simple as asking “how can organizations find a way to help consumers close the say-do gap?” because for most people, sustainability is a nice-to-have that’s way down the priority list, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

In summer 2021, we ran ethnographic research with 21 Glaswegian residents. While this was conducted in Scotland for COP26, there was a human truth that emerged: people are already doing their best. Nabila has her hands full, caring for her two young sons; for Sean, the last year has been difficult with personal losses amidst the pandemic.

Yes, there’s currently higher demand for less sustainable products versus sustainable alternatives, but that doesn't mean people aren’t interested in consuming sustainably. What this actually tells us is that people have good reasons for buying what they’re buying—reasons like not being able to risk trying a new meal because they may not be able to afford a replacement if the children don’t like it.

In a survey, people might say that they care about sustainability, but for some, it could be more of an “aspiration-do” gap. And for most, this seems to be a “vaguely-back-of-the-mind – do” gap. Organizations may not expect people to have the capacity, time or resources to do any more—to be better. Especially when, right now, being better requires significant research and sacrifice.
02 Belief: Brands need to help people swap to sustainable alternatives.

Reframe: Brands need to help people make decisions that have sustainable outcomes, whether sustainability is a priority or not.

Companies are already in the business of behavior change—they look to get people to buy something from them, rather than their competitors. Here lies the opportunity: a chance to reframe this belief to create more sustainable forms of consumption.
Not only is the say-do gap wider than we thought, but the barriers stopping people from closing it are more complex.

Our research showed that it’s not a matter of just fixing the price point and making it more convenient. Identity, cultural and social norms mean that switches to entirely sustainable lifestyles may not be a reasonable expectation. One of our participants had a heart attack, but as a lifelong meat eater he didn’t feel that he could give red meat up completely.

The behavior change brands are aiming for isn’t just about persuading people to make sustainable choices. It’s about finding ways to fit sustainability in with their most immediate priorities, which could include budget, accessibility, preferences and personal identity.

What does this mean for organizations?

Stop asking:
“How can businesses help people fulfil their desire to consume more sustainably?”

Instead, start asking:
“How can businesses enable more sustainable behaviors?”
— whether sustainability is a customer’s priority or not.
03 Belief: Sustainable consumption starts with consumer demand.

Reframe: Sustainable consumption starts with organizational action.

Organizations can't wait for mass market demand from a demographic of so-called “sustainable consumers”, they need to take the lead to reduce the burden on customers. Organizations need to provide the conditions for sustainable behaviors through their influence, offerings and the way they engage with partners and regulators.
A. How organizations influence customers

Brands need to rethink what and how they communicate with customers across interaction points, including before and after purchase.

At a minimum, sustainability needs to be intuitive at the point of decision making. For example, by supplying standard measures to enable people to easily understand what the “right” decision is, like Foundation Earth’s3 eco-label on packaging. Clarity is also important to ensure that you don’t need to be a climate scientist to make a better decision, and that the decision is authentically better, without hidden negative consequences. Brands also need to provide context: people need a point of reference for what “good” looks like—Ecolytiq4 and Doconomy5 do this by helping customers to compare their carbon footprint to the average citizen. In our research, we found that showing participants the carbon emissions of their grocery shop compared to other similar people encouraged many to reflect on their consumption habits.

B. The products and services that organizations offer

Organizations should embed sustainability into product development and service design without always leading with sustainability. They can do this through business model innovation: for example, offering a proposition that helps customers save money (such as clothing rental) with sustainability as a secondary benefit. In addition, the value proposition must be right: quality, efficacy and convenience must not be compromised in favour of sustainability and, just like any decent marketing strategy, brands should adapt the proposition of their products and services to audiences and culture in ways that resonate with them.

C. The way organizations engage with people, partners and regulators

To break the stalemate, organizations also need to become more proactive and intentional about who and how they engage. From a customer perspective, this means immersing themselves in the complexity of people’s relationships with sustainable decision-making—in particular, the trade-offs. From a collaboration perspective, organizations need to collaborate with more partners and competitors to drive changes in non-competitive and competitive spaces that will benefit everyone, like how Foundation Earth’s eco-label brings together major retail companies. And finally, using these partnerships, businesses can actively work to create the operating environments and expectations needed for sustainability to become the default. For example, multiple companies have been pushing for the EU to end petrol and diesel car sales by 20356.


There are three key things to take a fresh look at:
Mass is a myth: Sustainability won’t be a priority concern soon enough from a planetary and business perspective. It’s not a viable option or a conscious concern for most.

Reframe behavior change: It’s not about shifting consumers from non-sustainable to sustainable. People have a set of priorities that they either can’t or don’t want to sacrifice. Sustainability needs to be offered as part of people’s other priorities and considerations—explicitly for some, implicitly for most.

Reduce the burden: Organizations need to focus on a change in outcomes by activating different consumption patterns through the way they influence, the offers they put on the table, and how they engage with insights, partners and regulators.

In your approach to change, remember these principles:

You don’t need to lead with sustainability

Organizations need to lead with what matters most to that person. They should create products and services that meet people’s needs and come with sustainability as a bonus.

Sustainability should not require sacrifice

Brands need to think about what sustainable options are really asking of people (e.g. effort, price, the risk of giving children food that they won’t eat and that you can’t afford to replace). They need to remove sacrifice from the equation and be innovative in how they make sustainability a benefit to people.
Together, we can break the stalemate and make sustainability an achievable way of life for everyone.

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