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Overcoming Complexity: The Perennial Challenge in Sustainability-Led Behaviour Change

Posters encouraging water-saving actions for a behaviour change campaign called Smarter Drop. | Image credit: Given London

We’re increasingly living in a world of purpose-led brands, as growing numbers of consumers are more interested than ever in the “big world” issues related to the products they buy, and how they use them. And yet, when it comes to the sustainability sector, we still struggle to apply some of the most basic communications principles to the issues we are trying to solve.

Yes, the issues we tackle are complex, big and important. They create debate and are subject to scrutiny from scientists, government and big business, as well as individuals. But whatever the reason, if we want to create large-scale behavior change and truly engage people in sustainability, we are going to have to cut through this complexity. We must simplify, create clarity, and make it easy and convenient for people to opt into sustainability. Otherwise, nothing will ever change.




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We saw a perfect example of this issue a couple of weeks ago. Global momentum has been gathering over the past 12 months around the issue of single-use plastics. From businesses to popular culture, we have been told about the damage they have caused to ocean habitats; the energy required for their disposal or even recycling, and their part in growing our throwaway culture. Even government initiatives are beginning to reflect public concern with plans to increase taxes on plastic products or ban items such as plastic straws. Then the think tank the Green Alliance issued a statement saying that the notion of a ‘war on plastics’ should be carefully considered and ‘managed’ in a way that didn’t inadvertently cause more damage than good. And almost immediately, the ‘right’ thing to do becomes even less clear for consumers.

It’s the same reason why recycling rates have plateaued or dipped in many places: People are confused. Removing complexity is the perennial challenge of sustainability communications and, although it’s always there for good reasons, fostering it means we don’t build momentum around the things that really matter. It means we take an academic, ‘on paper’ approach to sustainability rather than a motivating, aspirational or human one. And the effect is that we put people off rather than draw them into new behaviours. If we look at the brands outside of the sustainability sector that have created tremendous and sustained buy-in from consumers over the last 10 years, they have built innovation on a platform of convenience and delivered simplicity to customers: Amazon, Uber, Google, Apple. Less clicks, less waiting around, less faff, less options, less instructions, less queues. Sustainability and brand purpose must learn from this and make their ideas and goals simple, accessible and convenient for people, at scale.

A commitment to simplicity will not only stop inertia around behaviour change, it can actually add real value and drive consumers to take action. If we look at how P&G are now approaching sustainability innovation, their mantra is about making sustainability ‘irresistible’ rather than instructional. Like other FMCG companies that manage enormous global brands, they are trying to integrate sustainability into new propositions and make it part of their appeal. Partnering with TerraCycle, P&G have launched a programme to create 100 percent recycled packaging (using washed-up beach plastic) for several of their brands. In doing this, they are making it almost effortless for people to buy into the issue, and, at the same time, naturally engage them in thinking about their behaviour when it comes to plastic waste. It works because it is simple, convenient and clear.

A well-known behaviour change campaign in the US takes this a step further – not only demonstrating the effectiveness of simplicity in sustainability comms, but also tailoring it to a specific audience. The ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ initiative, an anti-littering campaign that has been running since the mid-1980s, was built on an original insight that young men were most likely to litter and most messaging to engage with them missed the mark because it felt too institutional, woolly or preachy. ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ was launched as a clear, motivating call to action on littering, but also a reflection of the identity and pride of Texans. It spoke directly to the campaign’s target audience by creating a sense of ownership of the issue on behalf of the community and when it was first launched, created a huge impact.

The counter argument to the pursuit of simplicity or irresistibility is, of course, that we stop people from understanding the extent of the challenges we face; we make things too easy, too convenient. If we completely remove the effort out of living more responsibly, are we ‘de-skilling’ or even infantilising consumers around issues that require education and action? Do we also risk getting it wrong, missing the point or promoting new behaviours that have the unintended consequences that the Green Alliance were concerned about?

These arguments are legitimate and important. We need to drive impactful transformation as well as incremental change. We should continue to debate the ideas and ideals that we are organising ourselves behind as businesses, governments, NGOs. However, collective action is critical. We must agree on the issues where we need to focus and communicate these with clarity, singularity of thought and consistency to create change.

The challenge to sustainability professionals, brand managers and institutional stakeholders is to make new behaviours feel aspirational or simply more convenient, applying the basic rules of effective marketing and communication to the big challenges of our time and helping it all make sense to the people we are trying to engage.


Becky Willan is Managing Director of Given — a brand purpose agency that helps businesses grow by doing good.

[Read more about Becky Willan]


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