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What Role Will Shaming Play in a Post-Pandemic World?

Myriad opportunities exist to create a new “business as usual,” post-pandemic: People won’t need to be shamed into being more thoughtful or responsible if sustainable practices become the default in society and in business.

Throughout 2019, the climate crisis — and climate action — reached a fevered pitch. Though born in Sweden in 2017, the concept of flygskam (flight shaming) was championed by Olympic biathlete Björn Ferry but went mainstream under the tutelage of teenage activist Greta Thunberg.

The message was simple: Air travel is environmentally destructive and unsustainable. Don’t do it.

Going into 2020, the growing stigma against flying appeared to be working. According to a survey conducted by Swiss bank UBS in late 2019 of 6,000 people in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, 21 percent of people had reduced how often they were flying. In both Sweden and Germany, air passenger numbers dropped while the number of people using rail service increased. Flygskam gave rise to other terms — #jagstannarpåmarken (I stay on the ground), tågskryt (train bragging), and att smygflyga (to fly in secret) — signaling the shame associated with flying and the pride in boycotting it.

Though the flygskam movement may be the most recent, visible campaign of this sort, brands have also adopted similar eco-shaming strategies over the years. In 2011, Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisement encouraged consumers to avoid buying the company’s products if they didn’t need them. Burger King rewarded people for turning in unwanted plastic meal toys. A Canadian grocery store printed its plastic bags with embarrassing slogans. And KLM launched its "Fly Responsibly" campaign in June 2019, asking the question, “Do you always have to meet face-to-face?”

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“In the period leading up to the [COVID-19] crisis, shaming was one way to stand out and to differentiate yourself as a brand with an opinion and a value system. I think that was the main driver behind this,” Milena Nikolova, a behavioral expert, told Sustainable Brands™.

As for KLM’s question? The present moment has taught us that the answer is no.

KLM, like airlines across the world, is eager for passengers to begin flying again. The pandemic and global lockdown brought international travel to a screeching halt; and, at least for the moment, flight shaming with it. In fact, with the world at a standstill, global carbon emissions have decreased by more than 8 percent. Even with this promising environmental benefit of from the pandemic, the climate crisis is far from over. This drop in carbon emissions is due not only to the fact that air travel has decreased by 95 percent but also because people haven’t been dining out, shopping or driving. It also signals how much effort every single person needs to exert to mitigate environmental destruction.

To understand when and how eco-shaming can be used to address ongoing environmental issues coming out of the global lockdown, it’s important to understand how it works.

“Shame and shock are used as they stir consumer emotions,” says Christy Hehir, a PhD researcher in environmental psychology and travel at the University of Surrey. “However, there is a delicate line between negative emotions and action. Overdo the negative emotions, and consumers will instantly switch off.”

For consumers to take a company’s shaming tactics seriously, they must align with existing brand messaging. Trust, honesty and transparency need to be a part of a company’s overall ethos — as was the case for Patagonia’s campaign. The company, which has a long history of sustainability initiatives that continues to the present day, received accolades for reaching a large audience with an important message. On the other hand, KLM’s campaign advocated against the very thing that keeps it in business with minimal action to back up its conviction, leading critics to question its sincerity.

“The paradox of suggesting a don’t-fly campaign, whilst it perhaps sounds noble, also raises the question of what is their real motive,” Hehir says. “Generating uncertainty can make you question your trust of that company; and for airlines, consumer trust is paramount.”

In its just-released 2019 Sustainability Report, KLM president and CEO Pieter Elbers is quoted as saying:

“Even in these difficult times, KLM will not lose sight of the challenges that climate change poses to society. Even better, our work will be continued with even more effort. … A sustainable operation, innovation, and collaboration with other parties have been — and still are — the foundations on which our operation is built and they will continue to play a vital role in the reconstruction of our company and sector coming out of this crisis.”

Yet, in the present moment, when KLM needs people to fly for its survival, its Fly Responsibly messaging sends mixed messages.

One of the problems with shame campaigns in the past has been the negative messaging, void of hope, associated with them. However, people are more likely to change their behavior if social norms indicate change is normal and appropriate; and they are presented with a different way to behave.

“Essentially, to succeed with shaming, tell people about the problem — but also keep them upbeat by showing them the solutions and the actions they can take to be part of the solution,” Hehir says. “Alternatives must be readily available.”

It’s possible the coronavirus outbreak could potentially lead to a more sustainable future across all industries and in the lives of all people, and shaming simply won’t fit brands’ ethos anymore.

“I think, with time, we will either see more brands try to practice [sustainability-focused values] but with less authenticity than the frontrunners; or we might simply see a shift toward sustainability being the norm, so it won’t be a differentiating factor anymore,” Nikolova says.

And that’s where the difference in shaming tactics for movements and brands comes into play, and opportunities exist post-pandemic: People won’t need to be shamed into being more thoughtful or responsible if sustainable practices become the default in society and in business. But now, reacting from a place of panic, many industries and companies are eager to return to “business as usual,” just to reopen their doors and start generating income again.

“It’s absolutely normal from a behavioral standpoint that people are more eager to go back to the old normal, rather than to accept this is a new situation and an opportunity to redesign normal,” Nikolova said. Yet, some governments, destinations and companies have taken this chance to reimagine a better environmental relationship, rather than simply restart. Examples include the Seychelles’ new marine conservation initiative, Venice’s interest in attracting new residents, and likely environmental requirements tied to Air France’s bailout.

These new frontrunners, along with a groundswell of pressure from individuals and societal movements that may adopt shaming tactics, can force governments and companies to make real and lasting changes and establish new norms.

“The reality is that when a movement has started, such as flight shaming — if the COVID-19 crisis hadn’t put it aside, it would have probably grown, gained more attention and increased its influence on society and people,” Nikolova says. “I think such movements influence brands and force them to be thoughtful and start changing things so they’re more aligned with people’s demands. People expect to see something done different. They expect to see companies react and be good citizens.”

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