It’s a cloudy afternoon in Birmingham. A woman is rifling through her handbag. Finally, she pulls out a pack of paper straws and holds them up for me, and everyone else, to see. ‘Why’, she asks, exasperated, ‘if I’m trying to avoid single-use plastic straws, would you sell me paper straws wrapped in single-use plastic?’

Increasingly in our work, we’re hearing comments alluding to this kind of cognitive dissonance. People express the desire to do their bit and feel good about what they are buying, but they can only be as sustainable as the parameters of consumption allow. And the sheer number of things that they must now consider can be overwhelming: is it organic? Locally sourced? Tested on animals? Environmentally friendly? Made by a fair wage employer? Does the employer have a good policy on diversity? Few of us are able and/or willing to devote the time, energy and money to make the most ethically sound choice. We want to make the right decision, but the impossibility of acting mindfully on all of these issues leads to choice paralysis.

Since we’re hardwired to seek the easiest decision, convenience and cost prevail. So, if plastic wrapped cucumber is the only one available at our local Tesco, or if the non-recycled toilet paper is cheaper than the recycled one, then that’s what we get.

Fortunately, this complexity can be simplified. Legislative action, such as for plastic bags or public smoking, helps to build new norms around what is and isn’t acceptable through ‘push behaviour’. But the issue is more nuanced for brands. Many of our clients are grappling with this, especially those with business models designed for different times. Do you offer incentives or penalties to nudge change (think the 50p discount for using a reusable mug or, even more recently, a Cardiff coffee shop’s 50p charge for those who didn’t bring a reusable cup)? Or, do you take things out of people’s hands entirely through innovation (like Waitrose recently did by switching to home compostable carrier bags and ready meal packaging)? These strategies are effective because, despite hardwired inertia, we can be coaxed into action by the desire to fit in or avoid loss.

There is great potential in helping people make good on their desire to be more ethical customers. But while strategy is important, communication is equally so.
Time and again in our work, people demonstrate instinctive reactions to ethical claims put forth by businesses. They draw a fine line between what they perceive as a genuine initiative versus jumping on the bandwagon. It’s therefore worth bearing the
following three watch-outs in mind:

  1. Less talk, more action. Companies like Ecosia have ethics built into the brand,
    but many brands have moved with the times and implemented more ethical initiatives. These brands then need to consider whether, and if so how,
    to communicate these changes. Ikea was lauded for quietly adopting more practices that move towards a circular economy. By contrast, Pepsi was criticised for its ad with Kendall Jenner which shoehorned the brand into an existing social justice movement that it had no tangible, pre-existing link to. Making a big song and dance about new ethical initiatives can invite suspicion about how sincerely you believe in what you’re doing.
  2. Customer confidence. Each ethical initiative suggests a set of values and beliefs. But people want to feel confident that you are committed to those values, not just adopting them to look good. We are seeing a shifting preference for companies that either incentivise change or make it the default (like the coffee cup or Waitrose examples above) versus making people opt-in at a cost, like KLM’s carbon
    offsetting initiative. Furthermore, people respect ethical brand initiatives that
    go counter to profit-making, such as Patagonia’s ‘buy less’ campaign. Having sustainability or ethics as an option suggests that this isn’t an issue your
    business is fully committed to.
  3. Ease. When encouraging behaviour change amongst customers, it’s crucial to consider what we call the ‘effort equation’. This homegrown cognitive bias posits that the reward must be greater than the time and energy it takes to obtain it. Ultimately, in an era where constant demand is placed on people’s attention, they want a return on their cognitive (or physical) investment, and communications need to make clear that they will receive it. The reusable cup discount/penalty is an example of increasing the reward in a tangible way. But this could also come in an intangible form, such as immediate feedback of one’s positive impact (for instance, Ecosia show users how many trees have been planted so far thanks to their custom).

In an age where customer choice has never felt so nuanced and previously established business models are being shaken up, brands have the opportunity to square the circle of doing what’s right versus doing what’s convenient.