Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Tagged: consumers

How too much information can stop people from being sustainable consumers

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📥  Consumers, Environment

recycle

 

Writing for the Conversation, Dr Peter Nuttall and Prof Avi Shankar consider the challenges of becoming a "sustainable consumer".

Most people would agree that living more sustainably is something to strive for. With £13bn worth of food being wasted each year in the UK and global temperature records being broken every three years, being green is more important than ever. But it’s a lot easier said than done. The Conversation

For the vast majority, trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle is restricted to the weekly recycling of bottles, paper, plastics and food waste. And consuming less also represents a tricky issue for governments when consuming more this year than last year drives economic growth.

An enduring issue remains: what actually is “sustainability” and what does “consuming sustainably” mean in the first place? As David Harvey has pointed out, it can mean almost anything people want it to mean.

In its simplest form, though, sustainable consumption asks that people consider the impact their choices (when it comes to buying things or using energy) will have on future generations’ ability to make their choices. Sadly, the likelihood of the majority acting in this way is small. Most of their everyday consumption choices are made habitually or emotionally and not rationally. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman noted, people are prone to think fast, driven by our habits and intuitions – and not slowly or thoughtfully.

Information overload

So: how can governments, NGOs – even businesses themselves – encourage people to consume in a more sustainable manner? Currently, the dominant logic is to provide people with more information so they can make more informed decisions about what they spend their money on.

While this may succeed for a minority, in this view information is assumed to be a precursor to changing people’s attitudes and – in due course – their behaviour. The problem is that there is little evidence that information provision does this at all.

It’s also problematic, as people suffer from information overload. Too much information can cause confusion and, if it’s not relevant to them, people will simply ignore it.

However, even people who’ve taken on board the sustainability message find difficulty in practising it. This finding emerged from data collected by one of our former PhD students Cristina Longo (now a researcher at the University of Lille’s business school). To understand the trials and tribulations of trying to live more sustainably, Longo conducted an ethnographic study and embedded herself in the local Transition Network community, a movement that promotes sustainable living.

She spent two years hanging out with people already highly knowledgeable and committed to living a sustainable lifestyle. She attended talks and meetings, and participated in guerrilla gardening, taking care of neglected public spaces, before interviewing members of the community.

Our analysis of these interviews highlighted some major problems when it comes to living out sustainable values – even when you’ve got the best intentions. The paradox of sustainable consumption appears to be that the more you are aware of the issues at stake, the harder you find it to actually live out your values.

Dilemma, tension, paralysis

The more knowledgeable people become with regard to the myriad issues surrounding sustainability, the more this knowledge becomes a source of dilemma. For example, Tessa, a member of the Transition Network with a longstanding interest and understanding of sustainability issues, told us of her “green beans from Kenya dilemma”. For her, green beans from Kenya were definitely a no-no, because of the food miles incurred in flying the beans over. However, she found the clarity she had on this position was undermined when she learned of the social and economic benefits of growing green beans for the local Kenyan farmers.

Also, for those already committed to sustainability ideals, not being able to live up to them becomes a source of considerable tension. Veronica, for example, recounted a story about a talk she’d given on reducing carbon footprints. Afterwards, she drove past a family who’d been at the meeting, who were cycling. Being confronted with not practising what she was preaching was very disconcerting for her. Irene, too, wants to eat locally sourced organic food whenever possible, but on her limited budget finds it expensive to do so. This existential tension that both Veronica and Irene experience is in large part self-inflicted.

We’ve found that the more knowledgeable people become, the more it can result in paralysis or the inability to act on one’s sustainability ideals or goals. One informant Kate described a knowledge tipping point. As she accumulated more and more knowledge that she attempted to put into practice, she also experienced an awareness that her efforts would ultimately be unsustainable. Judith experienced something similar too but saw her failure – in her case to not buy anything shipped over from China – as part of an overall learning process.

Clearly, being a sustainable consumer is problematic and embedding sustainable ideals into everyday life is fraught with difficulties. Until society’s obsession with growth is addressed at a much wider level, sustainable consumption remains a fantasy.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image: Recycle by Mike

 

Why don’t people associate WWF with Earth Hour? The battle between ‘panda’ and ‘lights out’

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📥  Branding, Consumers, Environment, Giving

earth-hour-2016-berlin

 

Dr Zoe Lee asks how a strong brand identity can help charities who increasingly must satisfy both social and environmental goals and fundraising needs.

Recently I asked my postgraduate students if they knew about Earth Hour. Most of them nodded proudly and smiled. But when I asked if they knew who organised it, not many identified World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Some even mentioned Greenpeace. So why don’t they identify Earth Hour with WWF, and how could WWF use Earth Hour more effectively to elevate and energise its brand?

Earth Hour’s success is unquestionable. It has been labelled the largest grassroots social movement on earth, and is one of the world’s fastest growing brands. The initial brief was about how WWF could inspire people to take action on global warming without using fear. A simple idea was born – asking people to switch off the lights for one hour as a symbolic stand. Since then, many landmarks around the world have taken part, including the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and Buckingham Palace.

WWF is still deeply stereotyped as cute, cuddly and warm due to its iconic panda image. Earth Hour, on the other hand, continues to gain global recognition, and could be perceived as more competent and hard hitting due to its idea of taking action now. But does this matter to consumers or supporters?

Perhaps not directly. A classic text from Levy and Gardner, “The Product and the Brand”, was a revelation for the branding world. They made explicit for the first time that every advertisement must be considered as a contribution to the complex symbol of brand image – as part of the long-term investment in the reputation of brand. Both the panda and lights off images are powerful and different, yet they are not directly related. Brand managers must accept that consumers see a brand in totality, and consumers and other stakeholders play a huge role in shaping brand meaning. The two different personalities and tones of voice can cause confusion if there is no compelling reason to link them together over time.

In addition to consumer confusions, firms stereotyped as competent are more likely to increase buying behaviour when compared to firms stereotyped as warm. Consumers have greater admiration for firms with high levels of competence and warmth.  This may suggest some clear benefits for WWF to leverage some of the hard hitting and competent identity of the Earth Hour initiative.

Charities usually take a narrow approach to branding – managing external perceptions in return for fundraising success. In contrast, an emerging paradigm recognises brand as a strategic tool to achieve greater change and social impact. Dan Pallotta noted that too many charities are rewarded for how little they spend – not for what they get done. Using donations to fund advertising to raise awareness or change perception is still deeply frowned upon. We need to rethink the role of marketing and advertising and focus on how to start rewarding charities for their accomplishments despite a high marketing spend.

 

Macmillan Cancer Support is a great example of a charity that now uses its brand in a strategic way;  perhaps even behaving like a business by leveraging its warmth and increasing the perception of competency by implementing metrics and return on investments. They engaged in an organisational wide change process to shift negative perceptions of their iconic image, the Macmillan nurse. Although the association with nurses has been perceived as warm and instrumental to fundraising, over time they are perceived negatively as ‘angels of death’. And with a changing cancer story, Macmillan needed to change and transform as a ‘life force’ for cancer survivors. Hence, they have a new brand name and a ‘can do’ attitude to improve the lives of everyone affected by cancer. Fundraising increased by £26 million within two years of this change, and the charity was awarded The Marketing Society’s Brand of the Year in 2014.

A powerful charity brand can help to achieve social as well as fundraising goals, and we should be more open-minded about the role played by brand in fulfilling a charity’s purpose. WWF made remarkable progress when giant pandas were downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’. For this year’s Earth Hour, there is an effort to incorporate the giant panda image with the #pass the panda initiative, but in a rather ‘soft’ way. Following in Macmillan’s footsteps, WWF could potentially be much bolder in claiming Earth Hour as a WWF project, and one they are very proud of. To make the most of Earth Hour's success, and use the public buy-in to support its main charity objectives, WWF needs to find a coherent message that ties both brands together, because consumers are more likely to believe something when they see it as credible, authentic and relevant to them.

Image: Earth Hour 2016 Berlin by Phossil

 

What does our appetite for wearable tech say about our desire for choice?

  

📥  Consumers, Technology

fitbit

 

In 2015, consumers bought three million wearable fitness trackers in the United Kingdom alone. Most of this technology is benign, marketed as a tool to inform people of their physical activity. But there is also a growing consumer appetite for technologies that take control of their lives and place limits on the choices available to them. In this post, Dr Tim Hill asks what is driving consumers’ appetite for this new genre of technology?

2017’s World Consumer Rights Day calls attention to how consumers are yet to trust the products and services born out of the technologically-driven digital economy. But this is only half the picture when it comes to understanding our changing relationship with technology. Because while some consumers may struggle to trust services such as Uber, other consumers seek out technology to make decisions for them and to take control of their lives.

As sociologist William Davies has claimed, these desires fuel the growth of ‘predictive shopping’, which is where goods are delivered to consumers’ homes based on what they have bought before, rather than through an expressed choice to purchase. A growing genre of wearable technology is also illustrative of consumers’ growing appetite for innovations that make personal decisions and place limits on their lives.

When we think of wearable technology, our minds probably turn to those fitness devices used to track and monitor our physical activity. But is all wearable technology as benign as the devices which tell us the number of steps we take each day? No, not all. Take, for instance, the wristband that administers an electric shock of up to 340 volts to the wearer when they succumb to bad habits, the hope being that the threat of physical punishment will ensure we shake unwanted behaviours. Similarly, another piece of software punishes you financially if you fail to keep to your goals.

On the one hand, these technologies could be treated as just another tool - albeit masochistic ones - to ensure we achieve our New Year’s resolutions. On the other, the desire for this genre of technology reveals how consumers are looking for ways to relinquish freedom of choice, out-sourcing decision making and granting responsibility to technologies that, to some extent, take control of their lives.

The growing popularity of technologies that limit the options available to us and constrain our capacity to exercise choice is significant when we consider the way in which autonomy, liberation and the freedom to express oneself has been the great boast of advanced economies. If it’s possible to treat these technologies as evidence of a new appetite for devices that dominate, suppress and limit, a necessary question to ask is: where does this growing desire for one’s own domination come from?

Doug Holt chronicles a key moment in the transformation of marketing in 1950s America. Influenced by books such as William H. White's The Organization Man, consumers rallied against paternalistic marketing techniques that directed consumers as to how they should live. Consumers were aggrieved that marketing firms were providing oppressive blueprints for how they should spend their income while simultaneously asserting they had the freedom to choose. The most successful brands in the decades that followed - Volkswagen, Jack Daniels, Nike - provided platforms for consumers to pursue this newfound desire for self-expression and individuality.

Not much has changed. From organisations that work out new ways to offer us personalised products and services on the assumption that we wish to reflect our individuality in everything we purchase, to social media platforms asking us express to others what is on our mind, the obligation that we invest our sense of self into everything we consume has never been as dominant. But is this abundance of opportunity to self-express healthy?

Research shows perhaps not. Psychologist Roy Baumeister argues there are pressures that come with not only having a unique sense of self but also being compelled to express it. This is because being required to make decisions that invite you to reveal your ‘true self’ can result in a crippling sense of vulnerability, self-awareness and anxiety, since we are worried about maintaining a favourable public image. If you have ever planned your own wedding, you’ll appreciate how taxing and stressful these activities can be.  Prosecco or Champagne? Meat or fish? The ways in which we can express who we are to others are apparently endless.

The anxiety that arises out of these situations can result in the strange circumstance where you are happy to pay others to take control and make the most personal decisions for you. What this illustrates is Baumeister’s central point: that when continually confronted with the command to express who we are, trying to maintain a unique identity can become stressful. And in response, people derive great pleasure in handing control over to others, even if this means freedom is constrained and choices are limited.

From this perspective, the growing appetite for this genre of technology that limits freedom and constrains the choices available to us begins to make sense. For consumers burdened by organisations’ ceaseless command to self-express, technologies that promise to limit, constrain, and dominate appear to relieve that burden. While we may boast of the abundance of choice and freedom available to us, the role of this new genre of technology in today’s consumer society is not so much to do with facilitating freedom, but more with helping us to escape it.

Image: Fitbit by BTNHD Production

Is this the beginning of the end for Fairtrade?

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📥  Business and society, Supply chains

iain-daviesAfter decades of fast growth, a reversal in the fortunes of Fairtrade is apparent. This is particularly so for the Alternative Trading Organisations (ATOs) that spearheaded the movement, but which have become its first casualties. Dr Iain Davies asks what the future holds for Fairtrade.  

I remember cold, wet February mornings standing outside supermarkets and handing out free cups of coffee in an attempt to get the supermarket to stock Fairtrade products from ATOs. I remember walking into classrooms to eager faces waiting to hear how we can change the world through trade. It is now 20 years since those first Fairtrade Fortnights, and this week it is rolling around again with the brash claim that “the Fairtrade movement is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their communities”. The energy and vigour of this early social movement has however noticeably waned in recent years. This year, it is not just the British weather which is casting a dark shadow over proceedings. The question is being asked – is Fairtrade finished?

Fairtrade’s growth for much of those 20 years was meteoric. The Fairtrade mark not only became almost universally recognised, but inadvertently paved the way for the sustainability certifications that proliferate across fast moving consumables today. The UK led the way in the mass-marketization of Fairtrade, and still represents over 25% of all Fairtrade sales globally. But the future outlook has taken a noticeable turn for the worse.

Fairtrade-dave-crosby

Fairtrade by Dave Crosby

Fairtrade sales in the UK fell for the first time in 2015/16 by 5%. There is one growth area: bananas, a market dominated by one global supplier, Fyffes. Banana sales volumes are equivalent to that of cane sugar, coffee, cocoa, tea and cotton combined - all of which have seen volumes stagnate since 2011. Banana producers also benefit far more from Fairtrade membership, while smallholder-dominated categories like coffee and tea need to rely on other certification marks like Organic or Utz Certified to improve income.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Fairtrade benefits to producers (data from Fairtrade.net 2015 Monitoring and Impact report)

In the shops, growth has been in supermarket own-label products, often produced with reduced standards and limited producer support and development. The casualties are the pioneering ATOs, such as Traidcraft, Cafédirect, Divine and Liberation, who operate to much higher levels of producer support and development, but due to price competition and reduced shelf space, have seen like-for-like sales slump in the last five years. There have also been notable failures as new Fairtrade product categories such as gold, rice and quinoa have struggled to gain traction.

To further compound the issue, one of the biggest Fairtrade brands, Cadbury, has announced its intention to withdraw from the independent certification system in 2017, following others such as Starbucks into predominantly self-verified ethical certification. McDonald's and John Lewis Café have jumped to simpler verification systems such as Rainforest Alliance. 2017 certainly does not look rosy for Fairtrade.

There is also the issue of the consumer. Still largely unable to differentiate Fairtrade from other certification systems, our research suggests that frequent Fairtrade consumption is motivated by habit, self-gratification and peer influence, not a deep affinity with Fairtrade or its producers. These consumers are unlikely to switch brands purely because of a change in certification system.

So is the end of Fairtrade nigh? The idealistic social movement I joined, which believed it could subvert the market system, died some years ago. The Fairtrade which works within the existing market system to highlight issues of social injustice, however, and provides a framework for alternative trading, has nudged many commodity companies to confront their supply chain ethics. Indeed for people of this persuasion it could be argued the job is done. The more advisory role negotiated with Cadbury could offer a future to the certification bodies as they attempt to stay relevant to a corporatized, self-accredited system of supply chain governance.

But there remains a nagging feeling in my mind that the absorption of Fairtrade ideals into mainstream rhetoric has come at a cost. Not only has there been a reduction in the number of Fairtrade standards; one voice which may be noticeably absent this Fairtrade Fortnight is that of the pioneer ATOs that spearheaded this social movement. Increasingly delisted from supermarket shelves and priced out of the market by cheaper alternatives, they are struggling to break even whilst maintaining beyond Fairtrade commitments to producers. Ultimately, with an apathetic consumer and so many rhetorically similar marketing messages, it is these farmer owned, co-operative, or social enterprise pioneers that are likely to be the first casualty of Fairtrade’s demise.