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The customer is not always entirely right: why social norms matter

By David Powell on December 1, 2022

Even if people understand how to make dents in their ‘carbon footprint’, they don’t necessarily do it. Closing this gap requires social pressure – in particular, around what we think is ‘normal’. Businesses influence what we think is normal all the time – should that include climate change? Our Senior Engagement Advisor Dave Powell explored these questions in the piece below, previously published in Business Green.

For all the valid criticisms of the idea of the ‘personal carbon footprint’, individual choices matter. Lifestyle changes and systemic change are two sides of the same coin. Millions of small changes tip systems; vice versa, changing the rules shapes the choices we are able to make in the first place. 

At the level of the consumer, research is clear that there are a few things that have a big impact on a person’s carbon footprint. Top of the list are flying less – particularly those who do it a lot – and eating less meat and dairy. But alas. For lots of people, flying is fun, and eating meat and dairy is nice. There’s still a lot of flying and meat-eating going on. Just because we know in some broad sense that we should consider doing less of a thing, that doesn’t mean we will. 

Why? The first thing is that the nation’s carbon numeracy is not great.  You can’t really blame folk: I certainly never got taught carbon sums at school and I suspect you didn’t either. A new study from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) finds that 70% of consumers don’t really understand the most impactful choices they can make. 

Beyond facts

But it’s more than that. As the BRC notes,

 “Consumers are … not aware of the relative impact that different remedial actions would have on their carbon footprint – overestimating the benefits of everyday actions such as re-using plastic bags, and materially underestimating the impact of the more powerful actions, most notably making dietary changes. [They also have] Low willingness to change behaviour in the areas that will have the greatest impact.”

So people don’t really want to do annoying things like eat less steak, thanks very much – even if they do know that it’s a good move planet-wise.  

A lot of things are going on here. Something we’re all prone to is ‘availability bias’: the more we see certain types of behaviour change promoted, advertised or incentivised to us as consumers, the more we think of those as the ‘normal’ or ‘right’ actions to take. In retail, that means more actions like reusing carrier bags or recycling Coke bottles, rather than messages encouraging us to consume less of something, like meat. 

We’re also more likely to favour actions that don’t feel like they require any element of sacrifice from us, than those that do (I know I am). And this sense of loss, and of being compelled to give up something we like and enjoy, is something knowledge alone can’t counter. With some issues – perhaps in particular what we eat – we wrap our perception of what is normal around our core identities, cultural stories, memories, and values.  We don’t just need the facts on carbon counting. We need to feel a sense of social compulsion to change what we’ve done before. 

What’s normal?

“Some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal” – Albert Camus

Social pressure and norms matter. From my own early excursions into rethinking what I shove into my face, I remember more than anything else feeling uncomfortable that I was doing something that was not ‘normal’. Robert Cialdini, one of the leading proponents of the power of norms in persuading people to new actions, wrote“when we are unsure, we look to similar others to provide us with the correct actions to take. And the more people undertake that action, the more we consider that action correct.”  

Perhaps the most significant thing about norms is that we don’t realise they’re at work on us.  The BRC report says only 29% of consumers say ‘social pressure’ will affect whether they shift their consuming behaviour with regard to climate change. This is probably not entirely correct. It would also be wrong for business to take that stat as a reason not to bother trying to influence norms. 

In reality businesses, particularly big ones, influence what societies think is ‘normal’ all the time: what we think people like us are disposed to buy, wear, eat and drink. And all significant behaviour change campaigns, like the UK smoking ban, worked because they shifted social norms.  

Relatedly one of the most pervasive problems in climate engagement is pluralistic ignorance: we may care about something, but we don’t realise everyone else cares about it too, so we think we’re alone, so we don’t do anything. This is why sustainability-focused ad campaigns like those from IKEA are so good to see – they don’t just trumpet their own green creds, but also portray caring and acting on climate change as commonplace. Whether in store, online, or over the airwaves, the stories, people, stats and images we see – particularly from messengers we like, such as our favourite brand or shop – can have a huge influence on mainstreaming low carbon lifestyles. 

A little knowledge can go a long way, but deep behaviour change needs much more than just the right facts – or for that matter, the right prices. It also requires us to feel that it’s right for us, and to feel the appropriate balance of pressured and supported to go that extra mile.  Not for nothing have I always thought that a large part of campaigning is about getting people to think that something was their idea in the first place – of which a very large part is what our brains think are safe, normal thoughts to have.


This piece was first published in BusinessGreen on 22 November 2022.

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Using values to promote sustainable ways of doing business

By David Powell

David leads our advocacy work, championing public engagement and effective climate communications with policy makers, politicians and those who influence them.

David has nearly two decades of experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation and senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth. He has a MA in English Literature, an MSc in Environmental Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics. He’s particularly interested in the intersection between systems change and individual psychology, and how to build campaigns that harness the deeply held concerns we all have about the climate crisis.

Outside of work he hosts the climate psychology podcast, Your Brain on Climate, and until 2022 was co-host of Sustainababble. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands, and spends whatever time there is left running and playing the sax.

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