How brands can nudge sustainable behaviour post-coronavirus

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Jane Asscher, CEO and Co-founder of behaviour change agency 23red, looks at how brands and businesses can help consumers to make sustainable choices in a post-coronavirus world

People have never had more time at home. Coronavirus has turned our bedrooms and kitchens into makeshift offices and classrooms. For families or groups of housemates, the house is no longer busy during its own, brief rush hours, but constantly occupied and prone to battles over space and privacy. In moments of solitude, or almost constantly for those of us living alone or in couples, the time easily lends itself to scrutinising our surroundings, each unfinished DIY project stubbornly staring back at us.

It has been a time to take stock, focus on what we really need, and declutter. It has probably been the biggest collective spring clean in British history.

Jane Asscher, CEO of 23red
Jane Asscher, CEO and Co-founder of 23red
But the cleansing process has brought problems. Fly-tipping has increased 300 percent during lockdown. Local councils are struggling to deal with the vast amount of recycling and rubbish to be collected and, in addition, quarantined households are producing far higher levels of waste than normal, as huge quantities are not being disposed of at the workplace.

Necessity has led to an embracing of e-commerce. Online grocery shopping has increased dramatically, and Amazon orders have skyrocketed – consequently, items that were regularly bought in person pre-pandemic that didn’t require packaging, are now being delivered in stacks of cardboard boxes and plastic.

It is a worrying consequence of what initially seemed like a positive and thoughtful shift away from mass consumption and towards utilitarianism.

It is especially pertinent as we globally celebrate Earth Day – a moment in which we are all encouraged to recognise harmful behaviours and call for greater protection of our planet.

Changing behaviours

From a behavioural science perspective, it is an excellent time to be promoting sustainable habits. If we can embed them into day to day life now, we are more likely to maintain them once things return to normal.

The power to do so, however, does not necessarily lie with the government. It is currently focusing on the crucial tasks of addressing healthcare issues, communicating with the public and ensuring the right steps are taken to combat the pandemic.

It could be argued that affecting behaviour positively on a mass scale lies with brands, learning from how government operates, but combining that with the uniquely intimate and extensive reach they have into our lives via social media and other forms of marketing.  

The UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known unofficially as the ‘Nudge Unit’, is a social purpose organisation that generates and applies behavioural insights to inform policy and improve public services. Its ‘COM-B’ model focuses on behaviour as a result of Capability, Opportunity and Motivation.

Looking at recycling for example, the Opportunity is currently increased as people are home recycling at any time. To embed the correct behaviours, brands should look at addressing Capability and Motivation.

Capability is the psychological and physical capacity to engage in the activity concerned. Recycle Now’s KPI tracker shows that 82 percent of households place incorrect items in their recycling. In 2018, Defra reported 500,000 tonnes of recycling was sent to landfill due to contamination. The problem is people don’t realise how much contamination affects recycling. To address this, brands need to give people key information they need to recycle properly, identifying the main contaminants and explaining what constitutes poor recycling, such as not rinsing a tin of beans.

We know that targeting people at the point of action is important for creating resonance. With more people at home increasingly engaging with social media, now is the time to target them with these messages as they are looking up recipes, watching home influencers on Instagram, or planning the weekly shop.

Motivation refers to the reflective and automatic mechanisms that activate or inhibit behaviour. This is where the emotional tie to recycling comes in. We need to highlight the reasons people should care about recycling and these may differ by audience. For example, engaging mums with a brighter future for their children may be a strong motivator, whereas the social status of being a good environmental citizen may be powerful for a younger audience highly influenced by their peers.

In general, most people believe they have a moderate-to-strong responsibility to take individual action on environmental issues (NatCen British Social Attitudes 35). On top of this, 85 percent claim to be passionate about recycling (OnePoll). This shows that by using people’s beliefs and self-perception around recycling, we can increase its importance and encourage the correct recycling behaviours.

In the current pandemic environment, altruism has become a trend. People want to show that they are doing the right things throughout the coronavirus crisis. For example, publicly showing our appreciation for the NHS, staying inside and maintaining social distancing have become mass movements that are collectively accepted and encouraged.

Eyes on the future

Before the pandemic, support for environmental issues was reaching new highs. In 2019 Time magazine named Greta Thunberg its Person of the Year and The Oxford Dictionaries made ‘climate emergency’ its word of the year. Extinction Rebellion dominated global headlines and, while swathes of Australia were ablaze, some of the world’s biggest businesses were responding to environmentalists’ demands by changing the way they do business – McDonald’s, Microsoft and Google all announced enormous funding for green energy projects globally.

The groundswell of support for these issues has not disappeared, people are understandably preoccupied with keeping safe and earning an income for their families. Soon, however, as we move past the pandemic peak, brands can build on our collective altruistic desires and encourage people to take part in behaviour change with long-lasting positive effects for the environment. Who is to say that we cannot use this current crisis to play a key role in avoiding another potentially more serious one in the future?

On this, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we urge brands to look in the mirror, consider their own carbon footprint and whether they have a credible role in helping consumers change their behaviours to better impact the environment

For more information on Earth Day and what brands or individuals can do, visit the official website.

You can find out more about the work of 23red on the company’s website