Large-scale surveys are useful but if we are serious about changing behaviours, we must use every tool to understand human complexity.
Recent advances in behavioural economics, cognitive neuroscience, network theory and social psychology more generally have overturned our common sense understanding of human behaviour. The rational, autonomous, self-aware agent acting in his own self-interest according to static preferences has faded as we realise that behaviour is largely irrational, unconscious and driven by external contexts. Ladies and gentleman, Homo economicus has left the building.
Working with brands and their agencies on sustainability, I’ve come to realise that our biggest barrier to progress on sustainability isn’t consumer behaviour, political inertia or market structures. It’s something less complicated, more insidious and cruelly ironic. It’s the enemy within: CSR!
That loose collection of terminologies, concepts and examples that has created the illusion of a distinct discipline, detached from the cut-and-thrust of business and brand; that ominous acronym, in many circles synonymous with greenwash, which has facilitated a tick box mentality based on compliance and reputation management.
Experts in public health have struggled with enabling behaviour change for years. The sustainability sector should learn what it can from their experiences.
Consumer behaviour change is the challenge of our time. As governments and brands are beginning to realise, upstream improvements are relatively easy to make compared with the herculean task of shifting consumer behaviours downstream. While the sustainability community is just beginning to get to grips with the gravity of this challenge, our colleagues in public health have been wrestling with it for decades. Great progress has been made, but hard lessons have been learned – costly, time-consuming lessons that we can all learn from.