How Businesses Can Motivate Millions to Behave With Sustainability in Mind

18/10/2013 10:28 BST | Updated 16/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Many businesses talk a good game on sustainability, while others admit they are still behind the curve and need to do more. But it continues to be equally important for organisations to pay great heed to how sustainable practice will translate to - and be supported by - their consumers and the public at large.

According to a wide-ranging survey conducted recently among UK private, public and third sector organisations, there remains a mismatch between issues and action. For example, some respondents identify material scarcity as one of the least important external issues but making action on waste a top area of behaviour change.

This and other findings come from the Motivating Millions research and point to the fact that although there is a groundswell of support for making operations more sustainable, much needs to be done in the areas of leadership, delivery and measurement.

Motivating behaviour change is an issue that's been at the forefront of the sustainability agenda, but it's not always clear exactly how it should be defined. What behaviours are people trying to change? What strategies are being used? And how seriously is the issue being taken by business? Here are some ideas:

Defining the vision

While 10% of respondents saw behaviour change as primarily about "nudging" people, the majority defined it as much more complex and far-reaching effort. Of the respondents, 63% agreed with the definition of behaviour change as "an evidence-based process that uses psychology, behavioural science and audience insight to change how people act".

Collective responsibility

There was strong consensus on the importance of behaviour change, with 94% of respondents agreeing that behaviour change is important for their organisation. And the majority is acting, too. Three-quarters of respondents said they are already taking behaviour change action or planning to do so. In terms of priority audiences, respondents target most of their behaviour change action at their customers (54%) followed closely by their employees (46%). This is perhaps not too surprising as these are the sectors over which a company perhaps feels it has more control.

Three key motivations

The private sector's three top motivators for action were to secure competitive advantage (48%), to build stronger relationships (47%) and to create sustainable marketplaces (33%). That businesses are primarily motivated by the hope of gaining a competitive edge through behaviour change, suggests a belief that behaviour change has a tangible value to the company. On the more negative side, it could also suggest that companies are developing behaviour change initiatives in isolation from one another rather than collaborating or consulting for real, sector-wide change.

Gulf between issues and action

The research showed there was seldom an alignment between important external issues affecting an organisation and behaviour change priorities. Economic uncertainty topped the external issues but action on saving for the future and "managing my finances" were bottom of the list of priority behaviours. While more alignment might be expected between sustainable business priorities and behaviour change priorities, it is still early days in the development of behaviour change thinking.

CEOs must lead, but need the tools

CEOs and MDs are seen as owning the behaviour change programme (39% compared to 8% when it comes to CSR/sustainability directors and marketing directors) and yet their knowledge of behaviour change is less refined. They see it as more about communications or nudging than about an evidence-based process using insight to define strategies.

Public sector's leading role

It's clear that in many ways, the public sector is often ahead of the private sector in achieving real change. Campaigns like WRAP's RecycleNow or Love Food Hate Waste use a variety of strategies to achieve change including communications, research, public policy, grassroots engagement and action on infrastructure. The private sector currently tends to use a narrower range of strategies. The results also suggest that the private sector tends not to measure impact. Indeed, almost a fifth of private companies do not measure effectiveness at all compared to just 5% in the public sector.

Clear responsibilities for government and business

In terms of responsibility, the government was seen to have the lead role in engaging consumers on the need to live more sustainably (66%), while the role of business was to make it easy to act (55%). Third-sector organisations, even among themselves, struggled to identify their role in influencing change.

While there is almost universal agreement about the importance of sustainable behaviour change and its importance in helping organisations achieve future success, barriers remain. Increasing the knowledge, understanding and buy-in of senior colleagues, aligning key external issues with organisations' behaviour change priorities and broadening the arsenal of strategies being used to achieve real change will greatly enhance success going forward.