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Behavior Change
‘If I Knew, I Would’:
Why Brands Must Partner for Change at Scale

COVID reshaped our capacity for collaborative change. We saw that, when people had the right information, they would act accordingly. We must help people understand how to participate in the sustainable economy and what their impact can be. Even more, we must change social norms so that people feel compelled to opt in.

At the 2022 Sustainable Brands® conference last month, we shared a new study on consumer engagement and sustainable behaviors. The research revealed that there is a spectrum of intention — from those who will “do nothing” in the face of climate change to those who believe sustainability isn’t just a set of choices, but a way of life.

The good news is general receptivity for sustainable behaviors is high. 50 percent of consumers are willing to adopt a mix of simple, easy behaviors to protect the planet; and 43 percent are willing to go even further and make major changes to their lifestyle. These are exciting data points for sustainability practitioners and brands who are creating products that are better for the planet.

But we also saw a challenge. When we moved from the abstract, with questions such as, “How willing are you to adopt sustainable behaviors?” to the more specific — i.e., gauging willingness to rent or buy used products instead of new ones, to use products made from nature-friendly ingredients, or to skip eating meat once a week — the numbers drop by almost half.

The standard, well-understood barriers to these more specific behaviors emerged in our study: cost, accessibility and product performance. To these findings, we say:

  • Decoding effective methods of driving consumer behavior change

    Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.

    Value products and sustainable products cannot be mutually exclusive — brands must address the economics of sustainable goods.

  • There should be no sustainable product deserts — affordable, sustainable options must be available to everyone, everywhere.

  • Brands need to actively counter the misperceptions about the performance of sustainable products — people must believe sustainable products are efficacious.

But we uncovered another barrier that in many ways is best addressed by a collective of brands — it’s an issue that transcends categories and could benefit from a more cooperative approach. The barrier is best articulated by the consumer sentiment, “If I knew, I would.”

Across numerous sustainable behaviors, over one-third of respondents communicated a lack of knowledge or understanding about how, why and where to participate, and how their participation benefited the environment.

Specifically, we learned that 38 percent of respondents would throw away fewer products if they knew how to extend the life of existing products. They told us they would use more nature-friendly products if they knew more about the ingredients (31 percent) or if the labels clearly indicated how they are nature friendly (39 percent). We learned that they would upgrade or update products without having to get new ones (37 percent), access replacement parts or tips for repairs (34 percent), and upcycle or use products in a different or new way at end of life (32 percent) — if they knew how.

This is a unique moment in time. More people than ever before are concerned about the health of our planet. Consumers have never been more primed for new behaviors in pursuit of a better future. COVID reshaped our capacity for change and collaboration. We saw, repeatedly, that if a consumer had the right information, they would act accordingly – if they knew.

We must seize the moment and help people understand how to participate in the sustainable economy and what their impact can be. Even more, we must change social norms so that people feel compelled to opt in.

We believe there is a striking opening to influence behavior change at scale — an opportunity to drive greater adoption of the more conscious behaviors that will ultimately fuel the long-term habits of purchasing sustainable products. We also believe this will require a coalition — no single brand can help create the environment for large-scale behavior change.

There is a precedent for fueling this kind of change through public education. Broad, sweeping campaigns helped change the trajectory of smoking. They taught people to wear seat belts, to stop littering, and to eat differently for better health. There is an opportunity for brands to partner on this together, to form a coalition and help move consumers across the sustainability spectrum.

In 2022, businesses remain the most trusted institution in our nation — ahead of NGOs, government and the media. This is both an opportunity and a responsibility. People are exercising their agency through the brands they choose. And it’s never been clearer that brands must think seriously — not just about their environmental impact, but how they will participate in shaping a safe, sustainable, even regenerative future.

If they knew, they would.

Let’s help them; so, they do.