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How retailers help their clients make sustainable decisions

Let’s start with the story of the plastic bag. Go back 10 years to the days when it was normal to use a new plastic bag every time you went to get groceries. Your behavior has probably changed by now. And although this change in behavior can be put down to a number of drivers, your retailer is certainly an important one. By charging a small fee for plastic bags and making sure reusable ones were easily accessible at the check-out, retailers helped change their consumers’ behavior.

Giving up plastic bags is just a small piece of the puzzle and there is a long way to go yet. But we can be proud of this accomplishment, as it shows that our behavior can change for the better.

More and more actors are picking up the pace in their efforts to offer a sustainable retail-environment. Although the end-goal might be the same, the strategies and tactics used to achieve it vary considerably. In this article, we discuss 4 different tactics that can be rolled out to steer your consumers towards the sustainable choice. Spoiler alert – it isn’t that simple, and a good strategy lies in combining different tactics.

The different tactics to shape pro-sustainable behavior?

1. Inform consumers about the more sustainable option

Two weeks ago, Colruyt announced their Ecoscore1, a label that shows the ecological impact of a product. The label informs consumers in an easy and accessible way about the ecological footprint of the product, from field to fork. Although footprint calculators are nothing new, making it so accessible for consumers is. The Ecoscore will make it easier for consumers to make the sustainable choice while they are in their supermarket aisle comparing yoghurts.

That being said, is informing enough? If you think how long we’ve been made aware of the climate crisis, then you might conclude that informing is not enough. But it is still an important piece of the puzzle.

Research shows that the acceptance rate is higher when punishment measures are combined with effective information. For instance, if you combine a communication campaign to educate consumers about the impact of a product with, say, a hike in the price of that product, the acceptance rate is going to be higher than if consumers are kept uninformed. This might then lead to a change in behavior.

The moral of the story: informing and educating your consumers is important but not enough if you want to change your consumers’ behavior.

2. Reward consumers for positive behavior

Another strategy used by retailers is rewarding consumers for good behavior. Delhaize launched a program where they gave extra discount when buying healthy products. The campaign was called ‘Superplus’ and got a lot of positive feedback.

The thing with rewarding your consumers is that the motivation to make the sustainable choice becomes extrinsic instead of intrinsic. Simply said, people will do what they do because of the reward, not because they are concerned about the climate or their health. For one-time decisions, this might not be a problem. But if you reward recurring behavior, and then take away that reward, consumers might easily fall back into their old habits.

Rewarding positive behavior is a strong way of guiding your consumers towards the better choice. However, without proper information campaigns, the consumer will remain unaware of the benefits and the need for the changed behavior.

3. Punish consumers for unsustainable choices

According to Tversky and Kahneman’s prospect theory, people are more sensitive to potential losses than potential gains. In other words, losing is worse than winning. The average human being will play it safe in a poker game. If a certain move could win him 50 euros but also might cause a loss of the same amount, the player will not play that card, as the perceived loss outweighs the win.

When the ban on plastic bags came into force and retailers ‘punished’ their consumers by charging a small price for a bag, it felt like a big loss. Before, plastic bags were considered free, and now this free item was taken away from them. Although 50 cents for a bag isn’t that expensive for most people, the perceived loss brought about a change in behavior. Consumers made sure they brought a reusable bag from home, just to avoid the loss of having to buy a bag at the store.

Although punishing seems like a good solution, it only works in the short term. If you want structural change you need to inform and educate your consumers.

4. Give the consumer no choice other than the sustainable one

A last technique is the one of no choice. Lidl chose to make all their products sustainable, showing that sustainability should not be expensive and that everyone can make the sustainable choice.

By doing so, they take the act of sustainable decision-making into their own hands, unburdening the consumer.

This decision came after realizing that sustainability was not a main driver for the Lidl consumer. Products that were market sustainable did not sell very well. Lidl could have made the decision not to focus on sustainability, but they didn’t. Instead, they made the choice of going sustainable all the way, so the consumer has no choice but to go for the sustainable option.

And this is a very important point. Unfortunately, sustainability isn’t the main driver for a lot of decisions. Although many consumers say they are concerned about the climate, this isn’t reflected in their behavior. There is a big difference between what people say they will do and what they end up doing. The will to buy sustainable products is not enough to actually do it when it comes to the crunch. There are too many unconscious drivers out there that prevent sustainable behavior from happening. Read more about sustainable decision-making in this article.

As a company, you can wait until your consumers are ready to buy more sustainable products. Or you can be in the driver’s seat and take on the challenge yourself. The business case of sustainability is simple – there is a sustainable future, or no future at all.

Many ways to get there, but no all-in-one strategy

A combination of tactics works best, as there is no all-encompassing strategy. A clear communication strategy to inform and educate your consumer combined with an incentive drives the best change of behavior.

Our advice? Test and learn, don’t rely on just one technique and make sure your sustainable efforts go companywide.

But first and foremost: Take on the challenge! It’s not an easy challenge, and every change is hard. However, the benefits are tremendous in the long run. Sustainable companies perform better financially, attract the best talent, are future proof and create a long-term relationship with their customers and other stakeholders. And they are shaping a livable future off course!

So next steps for you: Look into how you can apply these tactics to help your consumers change their behavior towards sustainability. Inform, punish and reward and give them a little head start by making the choice for them. And most important – test, test and test. Try different things, see what works and why.