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Two problems with brands and consumer behaviour change, and a solution

 (This is quite a long post, sorry. I hope that doesn’t put you off, but not everything in life is in 140 characters, thankfully)

I’m speaking at an event tomorrow for a large company, on sustainability.

It’s for their global marketing teams and heads, so I’ve been thinking a bit about marketing and consumers and sustainability over the weekend.

Here are my two simple problems, below, with brands and this modern notion of “consumer behaviour change”.

There’s also a practical example below, of how it is failing in one case, and a proposed solution to that problem.

Finally, there’s a few conclusions about how collaboration is going to be the key to change, and the role of companies in making that happen.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read all this.

What you spend minutes on, I spent hours on. Look at it that way.

So here are my two initial challenges to the notion of “consumer behaviour change”:

1) Brands alone can’t make it stick.

2) It’s really not their role to do it alone. (In fact, trying to do it alone will be seen as quite creepy)

I should explain.

On point one, all the evidence suggests that although some folks like to think of marketers as all-powerful, they are not.

Yes marketers at Procter & Gamble helped create “Soap Operas” in the 1950s and ’60s.

But TV people made them watchable, and popular, not consumer products companies.

Anyone can have an idea.

In a negative sense brands are not as powerful as Naomi Klein or Joel Bakan (of The Corporation) would like us to believe.

Or, on the positive side, as Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman might prefer.

Polman sees the need for big brand sustainability action, given that:

“An analysis of Unilever products across their lifecycle shows that consumer use of our products accounts for 68% of Unilever’s carbon footprint. This means we cannot ignore behaviour change if we want to reach our targets” (source here)

Whilst Unilever cites a couple of examples…

“….the North Karelia project in Finland, which over the years has led to a 75% decline in annual mortality of coronary heart disease.


“In Uganda, using a community-based approach, HIV prevalence has declined significantly since the early ‘90’s.”

…the company is honest about how hard it is to drive sustained positive consumer behaviour change. The examples of this working are still few and far between.

I haven’t seen much evidence that brand campaigns alone have led to lasting behaviour change, I have looked. Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap campaign, has, they say “helped up to 48 million people wash their hands at the right time”. But how that is measured is not quite clear.

Let’s say we can believe this figure. It’s great, well done Unilever, but other examples are lacking. 

Onto point two. Brands, on their own, trying to create and sustain consumer behaviour change will not only fail, they will be seen as invasive, controlling and, well, just plain creepy. This is an obvious point.

This is why partnerships are so essential. But these, where they exist, do not go far enough.

Marks & Spencer has the right idea, partnering with Oxfam to encourage clothes recycling.

Unilever is studying how consumers act in their daily routines and seeks collaboration partners.

This is laudable, but just a drop in the ocean. If we want to change how people behave, we have to look at the systems that partly govern behaviour, and try to change those.

For example, when washing powder companies started producing powders that could wash clothes at 15 degrees, did you know anyone who had that setting on their machine? I didn’t. Many machines can’t even wash at 30 degrees, if they are more than 3-4-5 years old, and most are.

This is a good example of how and where brands, manufacturers and governments could have collaborated to drive systemic change. Yet search for that on the web, and you don’t find any partnerships

My point is simply this: Lots of people talk about behaviour change, but it’s going to need complex, managed partnerships between business, charities, local authorities and central government to change systems and create constant incentives to make it stick.

Companies are going to have to invest and everyone is going to need some new negotiation and collaboration skills.

(Here’s a mechanism I worked on for the current UK Government that could perhaps encourage this, if only the current government would use it properly. It’s the part called “Responsibility Deals” that is now being so badly implemented and without proper regard for the governance structure in the report. We worked on it for two years and had 140 meetings about it. We did our research)

So what now? A sample problem, and potential solution…

It’s easy to say things are not going to work, to be negative. So here’s an example of how a currently failing system, might be turned around.

Here’s an example of how brands, charities and local government could collaborate to deliver lasting consumer behaviour change on the environment.

In Islington, North London, where I live, the council wants to improve household recyling. They want to cut GHG emissions from food waste. This means recycling more of it rather than having it in landfill.

So far, despite delivering recycling boxes for food waste, and biodegradeable bags for them to residents, it’s not going very well. Here are the numbers.

The system relies on individual consumers putting food waste in bags, rather than with paper and packaging/other waste, and putting it in a special bin.

Boxes to collect waste in the home were given to everyone in the apartment building where I live. You put your waste in the bag that is in the box, then put the bag, when it is full, into a special bin downstairs.

All went well, for a while. The bin was full all the time. Then, we all started running out of bags. Now the bin less than a quarter full, on a regular basis (I check it three times a week) indicating that most residents have gone back to putting all their rubbish in one bag, as before.

Partly this could be due to natural slippage, people reverting to old habits, but a fair bit of it is because we all ran out of bio-degradable bags. You can’t buy them locally. You have to walk two miles to the local library to pick up more of them. They are free, but that is not the point. They are hard to get.

That’s the fundamental flaw here. Sure some 20% of residents are making the trip, good on them.

The rest are not.

The council have not made it easy for us all to recycle food waste. They have assumed we will all walk to the library. Most of us won’t. So their food recycling waste rates, across the whole area, remain fairly low and are not rising much at all.

So here’s a solution.

Islington Council, who set up this flawed scheme, could make it work if they partnered with others.

For example, there’s a big Sainsbury’s store in Islington. Why not ask them to offer recycling bags to consumers? Why not have them deliver, or at least offer, the food bags, when they deliver groceries?

Why not spread that idea to more food retailers? There are other supermarkets.

Why not work with local charities to promote the idea of picking up bags locally? Posters in windows are a simple way.

How about something on council tax bills, letting us all know we can pick up new bags at supermarkets or local shops?

All of this could make a significant difference to food recycling in Islington. Partners, working together, to make it easy for consumers/citizens to get hold of food recycling bags. That could make a big difference to local GHG emissions and attitudes to the environment generally. 

All of these things are incredibly simple. They haven’t happened because Islington Council probably lacks the capacity to think them through and act on ideas such as these above.

But large companies active in the borough, or in London, might be able to make this happen.

The points I am trying to make are these: (I know this is a long post, so bear with me)

1) Collaboration to change systems is urgently needed if we want to deliver consumer behaviour change at any scale.

2) No one organisation can do it on their own.

3) We need reasons to consider collaboration. We need a catalyst to create and sustain systems change.

4) Large companies active in their communities can and should consider acting as a catalyst for collaborative change.

What worries me at the moment is that too many companies view community engagement as something they do largely bi-laterally, perhaps with one or two other local charity partners.

Future community engagement is going to be about working towards collaborative solutions to local systems problems, rather than volunteering locally, or simply skills matching.

The above example is where marketing, community affairs, sustainability and the environment all meet.

Unilever’s research on five levers to enable sustained behaviour change are a good start.

Now we need to see many more companies undertaking this kind of public research and experimenting at a local level, in collaboration with others.

If we really to want to change behaviours, we have to change systems, that’s the bottom line.

Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, sums it up well:

“Whilst brands are perfectly placed to tackle some of the five levers, such as “Make It Desirable,” they can struggle to tackle others alone, because there are still so many factors that are out of our control. It is difficult for a brand to help make recycling easy, for example, if there is no recycling infrastructure for a consumer to use. Similarly, while we’ve tried to make the case to customers that shorter showers can save them money, it is a hard sell because consumers’ energy bills are difficult to understand, and it isn’t clear to them what sorts of activities cost them the most money.

Brands will have the most positive influence when they work with these ‘structural’ factors, rather than against them. This is why we are also working to influence the broader factors that shape our behaviour: the presence of good hygiene education in the school curriculum; the availability of recycling infrastructure; and energy and water policy that incentivizes efficient use. These are just some of the things we believe would enable our brands to act as multipliers to achieve the transformative changes needed for a sustainable world.”


  1. Nice post…….keep it up

  2. There's no need to apologise so much about writing a 'long' post – I have to try to keep up with loads of stuff a lot longer than that!

  3. Toby, I agree with much of what you've said here – but I think your point about partnerships is political, although you might not acknowledge it as such? An alternative view might be that the "invisible hand of the markets" will eventually lead to washing machines that do work at 15degC.

  4. Hi John, it does depend on what you mean by political.

    The invisible hand of the market seems to take a very long time to deliver important things such as 15 degree washing machines that work. (If that is even possible, I read that dust mites survived until 60 degrees unless several washes are done, which makes 15/30 degree washes pointless).

    So if you are suggesting ideology at work here on my side, no, that is not the case: I am just being practical. The market needs more than a nudge sometimes. That does not have to always be regulatory, but can come from these emerging notions of collaborative governance which to me, are so interesting.