COVID-19, Sustainability & Behavioral Science


Three Ways that Organizations Can Promote Positive Change

As we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, many have drawn parallels between the current crisis and the long-term challenge of sustainability and climate change.  Experts offer perspective (and some conjecture) as to whether or not this immediate crisis will impact people’s attitudes and commitment to sustainability, while CEOs (such as Unilever’s Alan Jope) reaffirm their commitments.

Certainly, this crisis may lead some people to re-think their habits, re-set their priorities and ultimately reduce their consumption. But we’d argue that it would be a mistake to rely on COVID-19 to change behaviors:

The implied assumption is that if people would only “care a bit more” (about the environment), they would act quite differently (and buy and use more sustainable products) in their everyday life.

Yet, Behavioral Science strongly suggests that caring is not the primary issue or barrier. Instead, it points us to the Intention-Action Gap that pervades our lives on issues ranging from savings, to exercise, to healthier eating. In other words, we’d like to do the right thing, yet we often fail to do it.  In these situations, caring more typically won’t lead to new behaviors.  Instead, we need fundamental changes to our habits and environment, which is exactly what the coronavirus crisis has brought us.

This is a time of disruption: People’s lives have changed in significant ways and we’re all still adopting new ways of shopping, eating and working.  This creates a moment of opportunity for organizations to shape and reinforce new habits as they form – and to nudge people in safer, healthier and more sustainable directions. With this goal in mind, here are three ways that companies can leverage this moment to advance more sustainable behaviors:

Build Behavior Change into Their Sustainability Plans

Fortunately, most global organizations now have detailed Sustainability Plans, complete with key metrics, targets and reporting commitments. However, these plans often focus on reducing the environmental impact of their products and operations (via sustainable sourcing, packaging decisions, etc.).  While these internal efforts are vital, they miss an enormous opportunity to influence the behaviors of the millions who use their products regularly.     

The Nudging for Good Awards provide inspiration, as they highlight examples of leading companies (such as P&G, Nestle and Danone) applying behavioral science to encourage consumers towards healthy and sustainable behaviors.

Reinforce Positive Habits Adopted During This Crisis 

While COVID-19 has obviously had an enormous negative impact, it has also forced people into some positive behaviors, particularly in areas tied to food (healthier eating) and personal hygiene (more hand washing and cleaning).  Most likely, people would like these positive habits to “stick” beyond the crisis.  But they will need some help, as there will be inevitable pressure to revert to previous patterns, as the immediate danger abates and familiar patterns (of working, eating and living) return.  Companies would be wise to reinforce these positive habits, as they represent a “win-win-win” opportunity to help consumers and society, while benefiting their own brands.      

This article speaks to power of behavioral science – specifically, the concepts of reframing, re-enforcing and rewarding – in helping turn new behaviors into long-term habits.

Revisit their Marketing of Sustainable Products    

Many companies have made considerable efforts to develop and market more sustainable products. Yet in too many cases, they’ve come away disappointed in sales and/or convinced that consumers won’t pay a premium for sustainability.

However, Behavioral Science teaches us that small changes in how products are presented (i.e. changes in “choice architecture”) can have a major impact on how they are perceived (and purchased).  Further, our research at The BVA Nudge Consulting – and from our sister agency PRS IN VIVO – suggests that companies often make a fundamental (and counter-intuitive) mistake in their marketing of sustainable products:  They over-emphasize the sustainability features, at the expense of core underlying product benefits (such as taste or efficacy).  Thus, they inadvertently position sustainability as a “trade-off” rather than an incremental benefit, worthy of a price premium. Thus, the answer often lies in recalibrating the messaging and pack claims, rather than changing product offerings or lowering price points.

This article from our colleague Koen Smets speaks to the complexities of marketing sustainable products – and the importance of making the right sustainability claims.

The devastation and disruption of COVID-19 has created tremendous challenges for nearly all companies.  Yet this crisis is also a moment of opportunity for sustainability leaders to gently “nudge” people towards more sustainable decisions and lifestyles. By applying Behavioral Science to influence shopping decisions and reinforce positive new consumption habits, they can create true “win-win-win” outcomes for their companies, their consumers, and society.