How do you persuade a billion people to change their lives?

Businesses leading the way on sustainability now accept that they need to take responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of their products, and that means helping their customers use them more sustainably.


Behaviour change is a hot topic, and the International Green Awards, presented at a glittering ceremony at the Natural History Museum last month, provided many inspiring examples of how organisations are becoming increasingly ambitious and creative in their efforts to help customers cut carbon and save energy, fuel and water.


Unilever walked away with the Grand Prix award for its Sustainable Living Plan , which includes the bold commitment to halve the environmental impact of its products by 2020. It’s a huge task which can only be achieved by persuading people to use its products in different ways. Consumers are responsible for 92% of the water use associated with Unilever’s skin care products and 95% of greenhouse gas emissions linked to its soaps and shampoos, and much of this happens in the shower.


So Unilever has set itself the challenge of persuading 200 million people to spend less time in the shower by 2015, and 400 million by 2020. It’s focusing on countries where water is scarce, starting with the US: a “Turn off the Tap” campaign this year highlighted the saving to be made by turning off the water when you shampoo – $100 a year for the average family. Unilever calculates that if just 20 million people cut one minute off their shower time, it would save a million tonnes of CO2 a year – equivalent to taking 110,000 cars off the road – and vast amounts of water.


Unilever’s key agents of change are its brands, familiar to two billion customers in 180 countries. “Turn off the Tap” is based on its largest hair product in the US, Suave shampoo. It plans to use another leading brand, Lifebuoy soap, to deliver messages that will persuade a billion people across Asia, Africa and Latin America to wash hands more often, to reduce disease and infection.


Why go to all this trouble? Unilever is one of a growing number of companies which realise that their long-term success depends on becoming part of the solution to the acute environmental problems we face, contributing to a better world, and being seen to do so. CEO Paul Polman, in a recent interview with Forum for the Future, said: “Most businesses operate and say how can I use society and the environment to be successful? We are saying the opposite – how can we contribute to the society and the environment to be successful?”

TBWA DenmarkGood behaviour change campaigns appeal to rational and emotional drivers of action. The Danish Transport Authority won the Best Green Advertising & PR award for an innovative campaign to “Drive Green” . It offered a compelling reason to change by promoting the message that motorists can make 20% fuel savings just by breaking bad driving habits, and it portrayed bad driving as wasteful and stupid (black in Danish). Adverts underlined the message with the striking image of a man unconcernedly hosing petrol onto the floor of a filling station, and the clever slogan “Drive green – anything else is totally black.”


The campaign, fronted by a famous Danish racing driver, offered 10 tips on how to drive better, but crucially it also came up with a clever tool to help them monitor their progress. More than 30,000 drivers have now registered on a website where they can log their fuel consumption by mobile or computer, compare their performance with the norm for their car, see how they improve, and – if they wish – broadcast their progress via social media.


Smart technology has huge potential to encourage behaviour change, by providing people with personalised, real-time information showing how they can act to make a difference. Onzo’s Smart Energy Kit monitors household electricity usage, and in a recent trial it helped 5000 households cut their consumption by 8%. It also showed that people will take action for the common good even if there’s no payback for them. The trial found that users responded to a “GridWatch” icon on the device, which flashes when national demand for electricity is high, by postponing activities like running the washing machine. Overall they shifted 5% of their usage out of peak time.


By 2020 there are forecast to be nearly 1 billion smart meters around the world, so Onzo’s pairing of smart data with behaviour change could not be more timely. The company, which won the Best Green Service Innovation award, is developing a service which will tell consumers how much energy individual appliances in their home use.


Both Onzo’s smart meter and the Danish website capture detailed data about consumer behaviour, allowing further targeted change campaigns to be designed.


British Gas, which picked up a silver award in the Green Advertising and PR category, recognised that engaging communities is a powerful way of changing behaviour: people are strongly influenced by friends and neighbours, and when they form a group they support and reinforce each other’s actions. It’s Green Streets campaign saw communities throughout the country competing to put forward the best plan to save and generate energy, and 14 winners shared a £2 million pot to implement their schemes.


Publicity around the scheme influenced a far wider audience. Three in five people who lived near Green Streets communities but were not involved said they were likely to change their behaviour to use less energy. The scheme also promoted the energyshare website, which offers support and funding to communities developing sustainable energy schemes, and more than 1000 groups have now registered.


But it’s not necessary to have a big budget to create change. Republic of Everyone picked up a bronze award for its Garage Sale Trail , which saw Australians hold 1600 garage sales on one day, finding new homes for unwanted possessions which might otherwise have been thrown away, and getting people out to meet their neighbours. Their success was based on a strong idea which captured media interest, a website which made it easy for people to set up and promote their own garage sale, and clever PR.


Guest Post by David Mason, Associate of Forum for the Future and a judge for the International Green Awards™


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