Sustainability, Virtuous Cycles and (Gasp!) Brand Self-Actualization

“Intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself ... self-actualization is growth-motivated rather than deficiency-motivated.” — Abraham Maslow

Consumer expectations of sustainable business practices are higher now than ever before, with as much attention being paid to the way a company behaves as to what products or services it offers. And in our interconnected world, consumers are less tolerant of discrepancies between brand claims and news reports of unsustainable and unethical practices. The question “is this company a good corporate citizen?” is increasingly common in consumer decision-making.

The Design for Sustainability program at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has been defining a new role for designers that helps reconcile the promises that companies make through their brand values with real and permanent sustainable change. The program’s approach incorporates a double-pronged strategy: From a systems thinking perspective, the designers are required to seek solutions that set off virtuous cycles of continued improvement. And from a branding perspective, projects aim to help companies realize their brand values by authentically bringing words into action.

A Virtuous Cycle of Behavior Change

Even as companies are learning how to more effectively incorporate sustainable practices and offerings into their organizations, consumers are demanding deeper, more meaningful sustainability commitments from them. It’s a virtuous cycle that is reducing the negative impacts of our consumption habits, although, many would argue, not as rapidly as necessary. Designers can help accelerate this reinforcing feedback loop further by proposing creative solutions that help companies help their customers behave more sustainably in their day-to-day lives. Companies such as Method and Unilever have been successfully implementing behavior change programs for years. Yet, despite the effectiveness of these programs, combined with the clear need for a dramatic shift in everyday habits toward more sustainable ones, our educational institutions are slow in providing tomorrow’s professionals with the skillsets to drive sustainable change.

The holy grail of consumer behavior change

Hear the latest insights, strategies and tools propelling cultural shifts and inspiring consumer desire for sustainability, throughout the week at SB'19 Detroit, June 3-6.

Wendell Berry has written about solving for pattern, whereby actions ripple positively outward and trigger other positive changes. One way in which SCAD students explore the potential of solving for pattern is to strategically generate a rapport between company and customer that helps one become more sustainable through the actions of the other: As consumer behaviors change as a result of an innovative company ‘nudge,’ corporate behaviors change in return as a means of building a more trusting relationship. The more the consumer market relates to sustainability, the more they demand it. And the resulting corporate behavior change is as much in the form of brand language as it is in the form of the products, services or experiences they offer. This brand commitment further highlights an emerging narrative that encourages more consumer interest in sustainability.

This process is driven through the application of tools such World Resources Institute’s sSWOT, IDEO and BSR’s ABCD approach, The Natural Step’s suite of tools, frameworks and metaphors, and, PwC’s TIMM. These tools, especially when coupled with service design tools and design-oriented mindsets, can generate cascading behavior-change solutions.

Brand Self-Actualization

Abraham Maslow defined self-actualization as the pinnacle of human psychological attainment, stating, “What a man can be, he must be,” and explaining that individuals have it within themselves to realize their full potential once other needs have been met. We do not have to accept the premise that companies are people in order to challenge companies to act in ways that are consistent with the principles of citizenship in a globalized community. And in a world where branding experts have long described an ideal situation as one where consumers perceive a brand as possessing human characteristics, advocates for sustainability can effectively leverage this concept to encourage more significant sustainable change within businesses.

In situations where companies are struggling to align their brand essence with meaningful sustainability initiatives, designers have been underutilized. Brand language is filled with declarations of integrity and magnanimity, and it is here that design for sustainability practitioners will find the seeds of the strongest solutions to shift corporate behavior. The emerging field of design for sustainability has an unprecedented opportunity to help define sustainable behavior change in businesses as a product in its own right. And by providing the means for such behavior change, sustainable designers can help companies actualize existing brand claims through a process of leveraging the expressed aspirations of the organization.

Solutions That Build Brand Self-Actualization and Accelerate Virtuous Cycles of Sustainable Behavior Change

A few examples of what the above design process looks like can be found below. In two cases, the students researched a market segment, then identified two gold standards in sustainable practices within those industries before selecting an existing company and developing a consumer-enabling initiative to help drive sustainable behavior change in both the consumer and the company. In one example, the student team selected Marmot, and in the other, Jeep.

In the third example, the student team started by selecting an arena of behavior (home composting), then developed a systems-based solution to drive behavior change through a holistic company offering. The result is Organikos, a product service system targeted toward reducing the barriers to behavior change for individuals who are still on the fence about sustainability; what LOHAS has identified as the drifter market. Designs such as this highlight the value of solutions that acknowledge unsustainable habits at the heart of resistance to change on the part of consumers, and articulate benefits to the desired, more sustainable habits.

If a company wants people to be loyal to their brand, then the company must itself be loyal to its brand promises. Failing to live up to promises in a shifting business landscape where transparency and authenticity are emphasized more and more can be an existential threat to companies. A company’s brand is a product in its own right, after all. And strategies that tap into a company’s greatest aspirations, as expressed in its brand language, hold the most promise for accelerating a paradigm shift in expectations for sustainable business behavior.

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