Jennifer Lynes is an associate professor and director of the University of Waterloo's Environment and Business program. Sarah Wolfe is an assistant professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.
As another Earth Day trudged on by, one message became clear: it's time to change tactics.
In our effort to promote innovation and change, we've been scaring people with threats of devastating floods and deadly heat waves, or trying to inspire action with images of polar bears stranded on disappearing Arctic ice floes – but it's not working.
We are calling on businesses, startups, NGOs and policymakers to rethink how they encourage and achieve environmental change. Here are four things that we need to get right:
Recognize that only 20 per cent of the population is strongly motivated by the health of the planet
The Natural Marketing Institute identifies five "shades" of green consumers, and only about one-fifth of people in North America – categorized as "Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability" (LOHAS) consumers – consider environmental and health implications as the primary motivator in their consumer decisions.
Yet we – businesses, NGOs and policymakers alike – insist on framing messages in terms of how certain products, services or behaviours are good for the environment.
But if only 20 per cent are receptive to these messages, we're merely preaching to the choir and potentially alienating the remaining 80 per cent of potential "green" consumers.
As environmental problems accumulate, getting the other four shades of green on board is essential.
Don't assume that information leads to action
The underlying assumption has always been "if only they knew better, they would do better." Tell people how environmentally friendly a product is and they will surely buy it.
However, information alone does not produce the intended behaviour change – research indicates that our thoughts are deeply influenced by non-rational factors and mental processes that regulate emotions. People make decisions according to what feels good, what corresponds with their identities and what their friends do. If we want to change behaviours, we need to adjust the information we emphasize.
Abandon scare tactics
Using fear facts and environmental shaming are not effective approaches to long-term changes to behaviour. Consumers are bombarded with information about the looming and negative effects of climate change. The implications of a warmer planet by just a few degrees is a serious and scary prospect. But studies have shown that when we're reminded of our inevitable mortality, our efforts to block or repress those death fears produce consistent and predictable responses.
For people who are already inclined, mortality reminders will reinforce their existing environmental identities and consumption behaviours. When made aware of their mortality, LOHAS consumers are likely to head to the nearest Toyota dealer to buy a Prius. But those mortality fears also help explain why others react to this type of information by buying a high-performance, gas-guzzling car. Death is scary, so some of us react by doing something that makes us feel alive.
Design cool things that happen to be good for the environment
Tesla owners didn't buy their car because of its planet-saving attributes. They bought it because it is sleek, coveted and has torque comparable to some of the world's fastest production cars. Even its key fob sparks dinner conversation. The car is a symbol, but not necessarily of the driver's environmental concern.
That Teslas emit virtually zero carbon emissions may be a great benefit, but that played a minor role in the decision to purchase. And that's okay. Psychological research tells us that emphasizing the youthfulness, cool factor and appeal of a product is more likely to nudge mainstream consumers toward environmentally friendly products.
At the end of the day, "green" products will sell to "green-minded" people. The time has come to refine the messaging, and design products and services that are exciting – for everyone; ones that perform at least as well the other contenders.