Colleagues resisting your new sustainability strategy? You must be doing something right

For many years, working as an in-house sustainability manager, I was angry and frustrated with my job. I would put considerable effort into developing a robust sustainability strategy, engaging my key contacts across the business as early as possible, and helping them understand their role in driving change. But, all too often, I found that things weren’t as going smoothly as I thought they should.

Instead of thanking me for all my hard work, do you know what my ungrateful colleagues did? They fought the change. They didn’t understand why we couldn’t just leave things as they were. Or they did understand, but their department was an exception. Or they had other priorities; could I come back next quarter, when things would have calmed down?  Or they were ready to begin, but couldn’t possibly do so without more information – much more. And finally (my personal favourite), although it looked good on paper, in the real world, Sarah, this was simply not going to work.

Sound familiar? If you’re driving change in a large organisation, you’ll probably have encountered at least some of these scenarios, and may well feel the same way I did about them. I want to tell you the story of how I stopped being angry at everyone around me, and learned to love the excuses.

A new perspective

It started when I learned a new word: resistance. I came across it in Flawless Consulting, a bestselling book by Peter Block that I’d recommend to all change agents, consultants or otherwise. In it, Block argues that resistance is an integral part of the change process, “a predictable, natural reaction against the process of being helped and against the process of having to face up to difficult organisational problems.”

I’d assumed that the resistance I was experiencing was because I was doing something wrong – but it turned out to be a sign that I was doing it right. Setting stretching, long-term sustainability goals means leaving some things unplanned. That should be scary and uncomfortable for all concerned, and they’ll react by resisting the change. In short, I realised, if I’m not experiencing some level of resistance, I’m not really changing anything.

Like most breakthroughs, as soon as I’d voiced my new understanding, it sounded pretty obvious. But the difference was that I’d been forgetting the importance of resistance in the thick of my everyday conversations, emails and debates with the people who were championing sustainability across the business, and it was stressing me out.

Embracing resistance

So what can you do to avoid making the same mistakes I did?

First, change the way you think about resistance. Encountering pushback from your contacts doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing your job badly. What matters is not how smoothly everything goes, but how you deal with the resistance as it arises. As soon as I realised this, I became a lot less stressed about my job and my relationships with my contacts improved.

Second, learn to spot resistance. Identifying resistance isn’t always easy, because people tend to express their feelings obliquely, especially at work. Instead of saying “I’m scared of the size of the change required”, they’re much more likely to give one of the excuses at the beginning of this article. Spotting resistance takes experience, but with a little practice it will soon become easier.

Finally, get better at dealing with it. Instead of fighting resistance, get through to the real reasons behind it. Peter Block’s advice is to “state, in a neutral, unpunishing way, the form the resistance is taking”, and wait for a response. For example, when one of my sustainability champions said, “yes, I’ll get that done,” and I knew from experience that he wouldn’t, I changed my approach. Here’s what I said: “You seem willing to do anything I suggest, but we don’t always see the results. I’m happy for you to tell me if there’s too much to deliver in this programme, and we work together to prioritise the actions. I can’t tell how you really feel about this.”

He was a bit surprised at first (talking about feelings wasn’t exactly accepted company culture) but soon explained that he simply didn’t have the capacity to deliver on the sustainability programme alone. Getting through to the real reason for his resistance allowed me to support him in making a business case for a second person working with him – and he became one of the most reliable champions in my network.

Changing your mindset around resistance, learning to identify it and putting in place strategies to deal with it – together these make up the fastest route to a less stressful existence as a sustainability manager. I’ve said this already, but it’s so important that I’m going to repeat it: the real test of your strength as a change manager is not how smoothly things go, but how you respond to resistance. Once you understand that, you can do anything.

Want to find out more about how to develop a strong, flexible network to achieve your sustainability goals? My book, Networks for Sustainability, is out now – find out more here.

This blog post was originally published in Corporate Citizenship Briefing. Image: Rue de la Résistance by Frédéric Bisson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Need a champion for your cause? Don’t look too far.

Who would you expect to come top of the list of young people’s role models? Nelson Mandela? Cristiano Ronaldo? Miley Cyrus? (Parents fear the worst, voting Cyrus ‘worst celebrity role model for kids’ in a US survey.)

In fact, the most popular answer given by young people when asked was ‘my mum’, closely followed by ‘my dad’. With the whole world to choose from, young people overwhelmingly identified with those closest to them.

That’s a critical insight for anyone designing a change programme for sustainability, because it’s not just the young who do this: we all tend to listen more to people in our immediate circle, who we feel are more ‘like us’.

So, while we (rightly) look to senior management to establish the culture of an organisation by making decisions in the name of sustainability, they can only provide us with the start of the behaviour change story. For the ending, we need to seek a different kind of role model: those who are changing culture on a smaller scale in their own department, brand or country office. They may be less high profile, but they are no less important.

Researchers from Iowa State University studied employees in the supply chain division of a global retailer. They found that the employees who work hardest to achieve environmental goals are the ones who believe they matter to those around them: ‘while employees may trust the CEO, they pay closest attention to their peers and immediate manager for both information and advice’.

Their findings are consistent with my own experience. In the mid-2000s, I worked in a company in which the UK CEO was personally committed to sustainability, and who swapped his sports car for a Toyota Prius. The news spread like wildfire, and colleagues mentioned it spontaneously for a long time afterwards. But when I asked middle managers who were taking action on sustainability what had caused them to change their behaviour, they invariably cited other factors: their immediate manager’s encouragement, or an inspiring colleague who had made an interesting decision relating to sustainability. The CEO’s choice had sent a clear message, but it was only when sustainability began to infiltrate their everyday interactions that middle managers saw the need to change.

So, if you’re looking to drive a cultural shift in your organisation, what does this mean for you? Here are three lessons.

First, find the right local role models. The best champions of sustainability are those who really ‘get it’, are passionate about changing the company, and have enough power to make brave and consistent decisions. Their job is to inspire change, building their own network of contacts who can make a difference in their business area. Many companies have developed formal networks of such champions, recognising that change agents at the local level are a visible and cost-effective way of showing colleagues that sustainability is a serious proposition.

Second, relinquish some control. That’s harder than it sounds, and it often requires a change in mindset from the central sustainability team. Although tight control is often necessary during strategy development (and at other times, such as reporting), delivery is a much messier affair, with different business areas finding their own paths to sustainability. Your role is to move from being ‘the expert’ with all the answers to helping champions to find the right answers themselves.

Finally, make supporting these champions a priority. Managing a network of contacts can sometimes feel as if it’s taking up a lot of your time, and it’s certainly true that there’s no clear cut-off point for support. But if you can learn to say ‘no’ to unreasonable requests, your support will be time well spent, because you’re increasing the capacity of your change agents to influence your company’s culture – and, ultimately, to deliver your sustainability goals.

Instinctively, we all know that role models are important, if only because we’ve all found people to admire and imitate in our own lives. Now we need to recognise that some role models are better than others when it comes to triggering culture change. This can help us focus our efforts where they will have the biggest impact: providing ‘people like us’ to show that ‘the way we do things around here’ is shifting inexorably towards the sustainable.

Want to find out more about how to develop a strong, flexible network to achieve your sustainability goals? My book, Networks for Sustainability, is out now – find out more here.

This blog post was originally published in Green Futures. Image: New colleague by stavos is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Keeping It Fresh: How to motivate and challenge your sustainability champions

Most sustainability managers have a network of contacts or champions throughout the business – a small army of people who help to achieve the company’s sustainability goals. But with the day-to-day grind of corporate life, how do you keep them motivated to deliver?

We all know the role of sustainability manager is a challenging one. Corporations are innately resistant to change, whether it’s the Board not quite grasping the strategic importance of key sustainability issues, middle managers finding their financial targets more compelling than your carefully crafted strategy, or your colleagues simply not changing their behavior in the way your snappy behavior change campaign required.

When all of this hits you at once, sometimes you can’t help but find it difficult to keep up your motivation to drive change.

But while you’re feeling sorry for yourself, spare a thought for your sustainability champions – those people you rely on to deliver your goals. The director of HR advising you on personal objectives, the facilities manager in charge of cutting carbon, and the sustainability managers in your company’s most important markets are out on the coalface, feeling the strain even more than you are.

And it’s your job to help them get their mojo back. What do you do?

I’ve led several networks of sustainability champions during my decade in sustainable business, and although I’ve made my share of mistakes, I’ve also learned a few tricks along the way.

Think Creatively

You may have a limited time to interact with your champions, but you can make the most of it by spotting opportunities to do things a bit differently.

For example, TUI Travel’s Global Sustainability Coordinators meet for a face-to-face conference twice a year, hosted by a different champion each time. TUI Nordic, hosting the conference in Stockholm, used a lunch break to stage a live demonstration of their airline’s new smartphone app to help cabin crew to measure waste and recycling on board. This simple presentation showed participants the value of practical actions, and left them inspired to come up with ideas of their own.

Encourage Champions to Support Each Other

The ultimate goal of having a network is for the champions to build relationships with each other as well as with you. In many cases, help from a fellow champion will be more effective than from the network lead – and talking over frustrations and possible solutions with someone in the same position often leads to a renewed commitment to the role.

You can’t force your champions to support one another, but you can create the right conditions for that to happen.

For example, TUI UK’s Retail Sustainability Champions went on a trip to Turkey to see first-hand some of the projects that the company is supporting there. Experiencing sustainability in action made them realize what they were working towards – but, just as importantly, the champions also spent time with each other and started to make the individual links that were crucial in forming a supportive network.

You might also consider running “speed dating” sessions at champion meetings where they get to meet the rest of the network, pairing them up with champions they don’t know during breakout sessions and putting them in touch to discuss specific issues where you think they have something in common. Or create a dedicated online space for them to introduce themselves, share the projects that make them most proud and ask each other specific questions.

Make Your Champions Feel Valued

You don’t have to wait for a meeting or organize a trip to inspire your champions. The evidence tells us that the key to motivating people is to make them feel valued, which means that a little extra effort in your day-to-day communications can make a big difference.

For example, in one of my roles as a sustainability network lead, I decided to make an effort to notice and share examples of best practice from my global champions, to respond promptly to requests for help and to send useful snippets of information every now and again.

Each small contact demonstrated that I had thought of them, and that I understood them well enough to send them something truly relevant. That’s an important part of building a relationship, and one that I believe paid dividends in terms of motivation… and delivering the company’s global sustainability goals.

Want to find out more about how to develop a strong, flexible network to achieve your sustainability goals? My book, Networks for Sustainability, is out now – find out more here.

This blog post was first published on CSRwire. Image: The Rissington Motivation Board by Simon Clayson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Searching for tourism’s Big Contribution

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak on communicating sustainability at the World Travel Market’s Responsible Tourism event.

As a ‘fugitive from responsible tourism’ (I used to be part of the sustainability team at TUI Travel), it was great to start thinking again about the unique sustainability challenges of travel and tourism, and to catch up with colleagues and friends who are working hard to address them.

If you have a few minutes, please watch the full session: there were excellent contributions from Jo Hendrickx of Thomas Cook, Xavier Font of Leeds Metropolitan University, and Gail Ward of Responsible Photography.

My speech starts at 4:20. The slides are sadly out of shot, so I’ve added them to SlideShare so you can click along at home.

The panel agreed on one thing: trying to communicate the concept of ‘responsible tourism’ to mainstream consumers doesn’t work. I was asked to bring an external perspective to the panel, so I outlined a few examples of what does work in other sectors.

I identified two attributes of really successful brand communications on sustainability – linking to consumers’ values, and being part of something bigger – and used a couple of examples to illustrate why.

It’s not just tourism that hasn’t yet cracked this sustainability communications thing. These two themes come up again and again in my work, and at some point I’ll write some more about them… but for now, this video is my best introduction. Enjoy!

Image: Beach scene at Current, Eleuthera by Trish Hartmann is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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How not to write a book

With a huge sigh of relief, I’ve just submitted the first draft of my new book.

Writing, it turns out, is difficult. (Who knew?)

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.”  Winston Churchill

I can personally attest that the above is true not only when you’re composing 42 book-length works in 72 volumes (and, in your spare time, you’re the Prime Minister); it also applies if you’re writing 10-15,000 words on getting the best out of your sustainability champions.

Although it’s only a short book (part of the Do Sustainability library of resources for sustainability professionals), I’ve managed to make just about every writing mistake there is.

Here are just a few of them.

Failing to start

I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.Steven Wright, writer and comedian

I was really looking forward to writing this book. I’ve spent many years managing sustainability networks and wanted to share everything I’ve learned with the world. Writing about it was going to be a therapeutic way of closing the ‘in-house sustainability manager’ chapter of my life. And, most of all, it was going to be fun.

So I planned the book’s structure, and read everything I could find that had already been written on the subject (not a lot, as it turns out). I changed the structure to make it easier to read, and squeezed in every bit of research I’d done, relevant or not.

Then I had a crisis of confidence. Was this the right subject – and was I the right author? Did everyone know all this already? There was only one thing for it: I had to change the structure.

Things only started to get better once I stopped planning, structuring, and imagining what it was going to be like to write the book… and started actually writing it.

Writing “alongside” other work

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams

I began writing my book early on in my freelance career, with no real idea of how busy I’d be. I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to find enough work to fill all the time available – but that’s what happened.

Not only did I have less time to work on the book than I anticipated, but writing it took much longer than I thought I would. The result? I extended my deadline several times, felt guilty whenever I wasn’t writing, and generally got myself into a state over something that was going perfectly well.

My clients, of course, shoulder a hefty proportion of the blame for dangling such interesting projects in front of me, and making it difficult to say no to them. Next time, I’ll write during a break from my client work, and cut out the guilt altogether.

Aiming for perfection

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

Things went well with the drafting for a while… until it came to re-reading what I’d written.

I was tempted to complete each chapter as I wrote it, going back over it time and time again to find a way to say what I wanted to say more clearly, appropriately or succinctly. But I soon realised that I wasn’t going to write the perfect book straight away: I was going to have to write a terrible first draft, and then go back and polish it later.

Once I got into this way of writing, I found it strangely enjoyable. Putting down my thoughts without censoring them meant that I could let them flow more freely. And when I went back through the text, I could replace the hard slog of writing with the much more enjoyable task of editing.

(A note to my editor: I’ve really taken this lesson to heart. Enjoy!)

Image: Writing by Jeffrey James Pacres is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Three things happy entrepreneurs can teach us about sustainability

It’s funny how life works.

Today I’m at home, hunched over my laptop, busily working on the schedule for a sustainability report…

…but this time last week, I was sitting in a deckchair in the middle of Hyde Park, wearing a canary yellow lei and giving careful consideration to the following conundrum: if you met a couple whose dream was to open the UK’s first cat café, what’s the killer question you’d ask before you invest?

No, I wasn’t having a particularly bizarre dream; I was at the Happy Startup Summercamp, the brainchild of the Happy Startup School and an inspiring guide to growing small businesses with happiness at their heart.

The day was packed with fantastic speakers, and I left buzzing with plans for my freelance business, from how to tell the story of my ‘call to adventure’ (thanks, Olivia Sprinkel!) to how to elicit honest feedback (courtesy of Henry Stewart).

But there were also some ideas that I’m planning to replicate with my clients to help them along their sustainability journey, and which I also wanted to share here.

1. Write your company’s obituary

I’ve heard of people writing their own, imagined obituaries in order to surface what’s most important to them, but I loved the idea of a company doing the same.

Ole Kassow asked a telecommunications client to do just that, and sparked a complete change of company philosophy when senior management realised that there was nothing about their enterprise that anyone would miss.

Chastened, the company decided to revamp their customer service, and to investigate how they could really make a difference in the world. A few short years later, the company is known and respected across Denmark for changing the ‘tone of voice’ of public conversation.

The obituary is a great example of helping clients to see the bigger picture for themselves, and one I intend to steal with pride!

2. Change ‘What do I want to do?’ into ‘How can I be useful?’

Andy Gibson’s fascinating talk was an account of his journey as an entrepreneur, from the first spark of an idea to re-engineer our view of mental health, to the iteration of his business that survived and is now thriving.

The original purpose of MindApples was to define and deliver the mental health ‘five a day’ – the equivalent of our daily fruit and veg – and ended up providing brain training services to investment bankers.

The story of the business reveals many lessons for aspiring social entrepreneurs, and I won’t try to replicate it here. But the one that stuck with me was the change of attitude that finally made this business work: from ‘what do I want to do?’ to ‘how can I be useful?’ The team realised they needed to ask themselves how they could fulfil a need rather than how they could engineer the change they wanted to see.

Perhaps it’s a perspective that more social entrepreneurs should embrace – it’s all too easy, when your cause is so worthy, to forget that there might not automatically be a need for the produce you’re selling.

The punchline, of course, is that MindApples is making a bigger difference in the field of mental health by working with an unlikely audience than it ever did working on its first idea. The money they have made teaching investment bankers to make better decisions can be reinvested in making a similar programme available to schools, and start to realise the vision the founders had from the start.

3. Ask people to do something outrageous

This one is perhaps my favourite of the whole day. I spend much of my time trying to develop effective sustainability messages, aiming to inspire corporate boards, frontline staff or customers to take action for a better world.

Often it’s an uphill struggle, and Andy Middleton’s talk (which covers similar ground to this Do Lecture) highlighted one of the underlying reasons – one I’d been struggling to articulate. “No-one wants to help you make a 0.2% difference to something,” he said. “But if you ask them to do something outrageous, people will join you to get it done.”

Perhaps that’s why it often feels like an uphill struggle to craft compelling messages from the sensible, stretching-but-achievable commitments of board meetings and corporate sustainability reports. No matter how carefully calibrated they are, they’re just not ambitious enough to get the blood pumping.

So, counterintuitive though it may seem, it might be those plans that sound most difficult to achieve – such as the ambitions of Kingfisher, Interface and a few others not only to reduce their environmental footprint, but to have a net positive impact – that will end up being the success stories of sustainability, because their sheer audacity will inspire the commitment required to meet them.

(And the killer question for the wannabe proprietors of a cat café? The answer is, of course, “Would you still be interested if cats weren’t involved?” It makes sense: as the café’s owner, you won’t spend a lot of time stroking cats – but you will make an awful lot of coffee.

If you’re not interested in the day-to-day workings of your business, it’s probably not the right business for you. So it’s lucky, then, that I rather enjoy being hunched over that laptop.)

Image: Happy Feet by Lalit Shahane is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Challenger brands: lessons for sustainable behaviour change

I love September. Maybe it’s the burst of energy as clients come back from their holidays and start thinking about new projects; it might be the change in season heralded by the freezing mornings and sweltering afternoons; or perhaps it’s just the legacy of a childhood spent being bored, bored, bored all summer and looking forward to a new term (yes, really!).

Whatever the reason, I’m feeling all ‘back to school’ this week. After a busy summer, I’m finally picking up my blog again, and I’m also feeding my brain with lots of intriguing-looking workshops.

The brain-feeding started yesterday, with a Marketing Academy session on Challenger Brands, run by PHD and eatbigfish. I arrived in a great mood thanks to the lovely security staff on the door (I’m not being sarcastic – Emirates Stadium is staffed by some of the friendliest and most efficient people I’ve ever encountered), ready to find out whether this particular topic was relevant to sustainability communications. I wasn’t disappointed.

What’s a challenger brand?

For the uninitiated, challenger brands are those that aren’t the biggest and most successful in their category: number two and below. In many cases, the market-leading brand enjoys the privilege of being the ‘default’ option – and that means it can’t be challenged by the same narrative that put it there.

Does this sound familiar, sustainability geeks? The more I listened, the more I was convinced that understanding successful challenger brands can yield huge insights for the big sustainability challenges: from encouraging people to take small actions to moving our economy towards renewable energy.

You already know about some of the classic challenger brands: take Virgin, which has positioned itself as the people’s champion in every market it’s entered; or Ikea, which seeks to make stylish furniture available “to the many”. These brands know that if they’re not the market leader, they need to be the thought leader.

Sustainable behaviours as challenger brands

We’re all well versed in the principles of making the sustainable choice the default choice – depending on the activity and our target audience, we might want it to be seen as easy, fun, desirable, aspirational or normal. But how do we choose which one – and what works?

The PHD and eatbigfish teams have identified 10 ‘challenger types’ – from the Feisty Underdog to the Irreverent Maverick. Each challenger type takes a different approach to its brand communications, depending on what it wants to challenge: a specific brand, a whole category, or even part of the prevailing culture.

Two of the models in particular stood out to me as having clear and immediate parallels with sustainability actions.

1. The Next Generation Challenger

“The Next Generation Challenger is challenging the appropriateness of the Market Leader for the new times we live in. It can be an elegant way to deposition a number one brand, positioning the incumbent as certainly perfect for a time gone by, while now being clear that the world has moved on, and so should our choice of brand. That was then, Ladies and Gentlemen, but this is now.”

Many sustainability activities require a ‘next generation’ mindset. Those of us who work in the field are ready for this change, and we’re sometimes surprised when others are not.

For me, the key insight from this challenger type is that it’s crucial to be respectful of the ‘old order’ even while you change hearts and minds to be ready for the new one. This type of communication is laid-back even while it’s excited about the future: we believe this activity is no longer appropriate for the world we live in, it says, but we recognise that the old way of thinking was once leading edge. If you still want to think that way, it’s fine with us; we’re moving ahead anyway.

Fossil fuels, for example, are the very backbone of modern life, fuelling the industrial revolution and allowing an increase in quality of life beyond our wildest dreams. We didn’t know, of course, that coal and oil were releasing carbon dioxide into our atmosphere; and now that renewables technology is maturing, it’s time to say thanks, fossil fuels, but you’re no longer the fuel of the future. Just don’t forget the ‘thanks’.

It works well for smaller behaviours, too. Audi executed a great Next Generation campaign in the US in 2010. Watch the advert for the Audi A4 and ask yourself: what happens if the next generation of car isn’t a new car, but a bicycle – or even a car you don’t own?

2. The Enlightened Zagger

“The Enlightened Zagger is deliberately swimming against a prevailing current not in the category, but in the culture. They challenge ‘conventional wisdom’ (rather than the status quo) around the way we live: I know the world buys into this as an acceptable way to live, they say, but I am calling it out for the BS it really is.”

This type also has some clear applications for sustainability. Campaigns that challenge our culture of fast, throwaway fashion, for example, or the need to travel to international business meetings when videoconference can get us there faster, cheaper and with much less hassle.

Crucially, again, is this notion of respect for individuals and their choices. Instead of challenging the category and people who use it (e.g. the people who follow fashion, to whom it’s an important part of their identity), the brands challenge the culture that demands the unsustainable behaviour (e.g. the increasing speed of changes in fashion). It’s a less direct but much more effective route to changing specific behaviours.

The Camper shoe company’s Walk, Don’t Run campaign epitomises the Enlightened Zagger approach, taking aim at the speed of modern society and asking the consumer to think about what really matters: taking time.

What can we do?

These are by no means the only two challenger types with valuable insights for sustainability – I’m sure there are sustainable products and behaviours that sit in all 10 types. (With names like the Visionary, the Missionary, and the Game Changer, there pretty much have to be!)

But for now I’m going to sit back, look at my current work, see if I can reframe the communications goals as ‘challenger behaviours’, and glean some insights from brands that have challenged the status quo… and won.

Image: Never Fear, Underdog Is Here! by Bart is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Customers don’t need no education…

This week I have mostly been getting angry with a phrase.

“In 2014, we will continue to educate our customers on how to save energy”

“We’re educating our customers on the benefits of buying our local produce”

Yes, the phrase is “educating our customers”, and I’m angry because I think it’s a terrible goal, yet I’ve come across it in a surprising number of corporate responsibility reports.

Why do I hate it so? Because at its best, it’s indicative of sloppy thinking. At its worst, it’s disrespectful of a company’s most important stakeholders – its customers.

The second of these is simple, so let’s deal with it first. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I maintain that, as an adult, I’m responsible for my own learning. I feel vaguely insulted by the notion that a brand is setting out to “educate” me, and I’ll wager other customers would feel the same if they thought this was happening to them.

But that’s a side issue. My main objection to the use of “educating customers” as a goal is that although it may sound good, it’s just not specific enough to be meaningful. As a reader of your report, I’m left with several unanswered questions:

  1. Why is it that you need to educate your customers? (i.e. what do you need them to think or do differently?)
  2. How are you going to do it?
  3. And how will you know when you’ve succeeded?

Let’s say you’ve recently launched an eco-friendly version of a best-selling product, but it hasn’t been as popular as you expected. Should you set a goal to “educate customers about our eco-friendly products”?

Your research shows that customers don’t trust the quality of ‘eco’ products and are reluctant to take a chance on yours. So we can answer question 1: you want to change customers’ minds about the quality of the product (thinking differently) – and then you want them to buy it (doing differently).

The answer to the question 2 will depend on the type of product and the insights you’ve gathered from customers. It might be prudent to carry out live demonstrations, gather testimonials or endorsement, distribute free samples, or start a campaign on social media.

As for question 3, that’s easy: you’ll know when your strategy has worked because you’ll start to sell more of the eco-friendly product.

It’s not rocket science, and it feels slightly patronising just to type out this example. But I’ve read so many woolly goals on customer engagement recently that I think the point is worth labouring: none of the above is adequately covered by the phrase “we will educate customers about our eco-friendly products”.

As with all goals, the key is to unleash your inner toddler and ask “why?” as many times as you need to before you’re clear on what you’re trying to do, and how you’re going to measure it.

So my plea to the writers of CR reports is this: please steer clear of the “e”-word if you possibly can, and try instead to describe what you’re really trying to achieve. I guarantee it will be more specific, more powerful, and more respectful of your customers.

Image: Crayons by Danielle Kellogg is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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The Social Animal: why willpower never works

This year, I resolved to read one sustainability-related book per month. April’s book is The Social Animal by David Brooks, published in 2011. 

OK, so this isn’t technically a book on sustainability. As the blurb tells me, it’s an exploration of “non-cognitive skills – those hidden qualities that can’t be easily counted or measured, but which in real life lead to happiness and fulfilment”.

But The Social Animal is a great introduction to the way humans work, and as such I found it to be one of the most sustainability-relevant books I’ve read in a while.

It’s written as a novel rather than a non-fiction volume, following the lives of Harold and Erica from infancy to old age. The conceit works only some of the time – but when it does work, it’s an inspired tactic that delivers buckets of information to the reader in double-quick time.

It brings new life, for example, to the classic ‘marshmallow study’ of the 1970s, carried out by Walter Mischel at Stanford. Mischel gave a marshmallow to a series of four-year-olds, telling them that he was about to leave the room. They had a choice: eat the marshmallow while he was gone, or wait until he returned and receive two marshmallows. Famously, those children who were able to resist the marshmallow in his absence were found to be higher achievers later in life.

But Brooks takes his analysis further, searching for the underlying reason that some were able to control their impulses and others weren’t. Crucially, those who resisted the marshmallow employed strategies of distraction and imagination. They looked away, or pretended the marshmallow wasn’t real. What they didn’t do was to look at the marshmallow in all its squidgy glory, and dig deep for the willpower to resist.

Mischel used this finding in a later study, asking children to imagine there was a frame around the marshmallow, and that it was only a picture. The children employing this strategy were able to wait three times longer before giving in and eating it. Again, they didn’t control their longing for the marshmallow – instead, they triggered ways of seeing it that meant their longing was displaced.

Brooks returns to this theme more than once. When one of his characters becomes an alcoholic, he realises he can’t change his drinking patterns through willpower alone, but decides to put himself in a context that can trigger change: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

The lesson for sustainability? If we’re going to put in place successful new norms for sustainable behaviours, we need to take into account the unconscious reasons for our current behaviour.

And we’ll have to come up with solutions that work with our natural ability to change, rather than imploring us to rely on willpower. Against our unconscious mind, it doesn’t have a chance.

Image: Mini-Marshmallow Cupcakes by Anne is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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What can new parents teach us about sustainable lifestyles?

Last week I took part in the Unilever Sustainable Living Lab, an online initiative to crowdsource solutions and share information on the key sustainability challenges for the company. (Disclosure: I used to work in the sustainability team at Unilever. But this post isn’t really about them…)

Unilever knows that 68% of its environmental impacts happen at the consumer use stage, chiefly due to the use of hot water during showers, baths and laundry. That means that consumer behaviour change is a key issue for them, as it will be for many companies in the coming years.

I was particularly interested in comment made by Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, during the lab: that Unilever is looking at ‘concerned caregivers’ as a key audience for change. We’ve known for some time that people at a transition in their lives are more open to change – and it shouldn’t be a surprise that those who have their children’s future to think about should care about it more.

But do sustainability-related behaviours really change when you become a parent? (And can the change possibly be in the right direction?)

Well, as a new ‘concerned caregiver’ myself, I’ve been looking out for changes in my own behaviour and that of my friends as we become parents.

Unsurprisingly, I found that parenthood it involves a huge increase in waste (disposable nappies), laundry (reusable nappies – yes, I’ve dabbled in both!) and general levels of consumption (car seats, cots, high chairs… and that’s just for the beginning of my daughter’s life, throughout which she’ll almost certainly consume a lot more).

In my largely middle-class community in the UK, second-hand items aren’t usually valued unless they’re branded as ‘vintage’ or ‘shabby chic’. But I’ve lost count of the number of events, online forums and Facebook groups dedicated to finding second-hand equipment for their offspring.

So why do new parents suddenly accept second-hand items for their precious little ones? And are there any lessons to learn for encouraging behaviour change for sustainability? Here are my initial thoughts:

1. Novel (and mass) purchases

For first-time parents, baby equipment is completely new – and many of them are purchased together, before the baby is born. That makes them more aware of the comparisons and choices they’re making, and of the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ they’re acquiring.

Can we make purchasing lots of products more obvious to consumers, and therefore a bigger deal? For example, can we remind consumers of all the other, similar purchases they’ve made, so buying a t-shirt is seen as adding to the large amount of clothing they’ve bought already this year?

2. ‘Try before you buy’ goes out of the comfort zone

Parents are often given lots of second-hand clothes by well-meaning friends and relative – whether they want them or not! This injection of freebies may well convince them that second-hand clothes are ‘safe’ to buy.

Can we help consumers to become more comfortable with sustainable choices – especially if those choices have a status implication, like second-hand items – by allowing them to have the first few for free? Lots of brands give out free samples… but can we do so in a way that challenges their assumptions about the product?

3. Status exceptions

The category ‘baby stuff’ is acknowledged to be expensive, so it’s socially acceptable to buy second-hand equipment among those groups who otherwise shun reused items. And, of course, babies have none of the status concerns of adults, so they don’t mind wearing second-hand clothes or using second-hand products.

Can we create more categories like this one, in which we’re exempt from normal status rules? In the UK, for example, meat is becoming less of a ‘status’ food, and we’re more accepting of the reasons people give (ethics, environment, health) for choosing some meat-free meals.

4. Designed with a little terror in mind

Children go through clothes, toys and other equipment in a matter of weeks or months. Unlike adult-targeted products with such a short life, the products need to be robust or they won’t survive very long. That means they’re still in good condition when they have outlived their use with their first owner, and it seems more of a waste to throw them away.

Can we design more products so that they have a longer lifespan than the average use by their first user, so that consumers feel it’s a waste of a good product if they don’t pass it on? What would happen if mobile phones were still as good as new once the new version came out?

5. Size matters

Car seats, buggies, high chairs, cots, changing tables… they’re all big, they all take up space, and once the baby has finished with them, you want them all out of your house as quickly as possible. In this case, reusing products is driven as much by primary users wishing to get rid of them as it is by secondary users wishing to buy them.

Can we find a way for products to become an inconvenience to the primary user once they’re ready to be passed onto someone else?

As you can see, I’m at the beginning of my thought process on many of these ideas. If you can build on them, I’d love to know about it – please leave a comment below!

Image: Diaper Rainbow by Heather is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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