The future of sustainability is design, not communication. When it comes to building brands and driving change, effective communication is a prerequisite. Unsurprisingly then, communications are often the first port of call when it comes to the unique challenges and opportunities that sustainability represents for today’s brands.
However, emerging cultural, economic and technological trends related to sustainability are forcing brands to think differently about the role of communications in their wider brand ecosystem. As is so often the case, when the game is changing this quickly, a more effective solution requires a redefinition of the problem.
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.
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.