Tag Archives: Reduce consumption

How long does it take to ‘go sustainable’?

A lot of my posts have been in and around how you can get people to change their behaviour.  In particular, how can you get people to act in a way that is more ‘sustainable’.  To me this usually means buying less stuff or eating less meat.  I’ve been thinking about trying to solve this from an advertising or communications perspective because that’s where my (work) experience lies.  However, I’ve come to realise that thinking of the issue of sustainability through the lens of advertising is this is far too simplistic.

This is because advertising, on the whole, works by trying to encourage you to choose a brand when you are already thinking about buying that category.  So, feel like a pint?  Choose Stella over the others for these reasons.  Need to buy some washing powder?  Then this is why Ariel is the one to buy.

(I know this is a gross over simplication, but when you think about a lot of categories, it’s true – all FMCG, fashion, health and beauty, car insurance etc etc).

So, advertising is typically short form (from posters up to 30′ TV ads) which is proven (sometimes) to encourage people to buy more of a particular brand.  The important thing however is how much of the work the consumer has already done for the advertiser.  For example, the consumer is typically  a) in a ‘consuming’ mindset – they have money in their pocket  b) are in the environment (e.g. shop or online) where you are available c) are in the mood to buy from the category (e.g. after work in the pub, or in the supermarket doing the weekly shop).  As a result, all the advertising has to do is to tip people to buy your brand rather than the competitor, which are likely to be next to them.  It’s pretty simple job really.

Now consider that against communications to try and get people to buy less.  This is going to be far more difficult because it’s about reversing the ‘consuming mindset’.  To get people to consider whether or not they actually need to buy what they are thinking of buying in the first place.  It’s about getting people to value the value of ‘stuff’ and what role it plays in their lives.  As a result, it’s about consumerism and meaning and what’s important etc etc.  To do this is huge task that’s going to take a lot more communication than a 30′ ad or a poster.  So, how long does it take to think like this?

Not 30′, more like a year, I reckon.  This is because that’s how long it’s taken me.  To change the way I think about shopping and eating meat – such that I’ve reduced both by a considerable amount.  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot and talking to people about it a lot.  Now, it might be possible to get people to do it quicker than me – I hope so and I guess that’s the challenge – but the recognition of the time frame it’s taken me has helped me frame the scale of the task that faces us all.  It’s a big task.

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The machismo of nut roast

So, Nick Stern (of the IPCC’s Stern Review) says that the single thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to go vegetarian.  Now, I LOVE roast lamb and a bacon sandwich, so this could be hard.  But to do it for a week can’t be that difficult.  Can it?

So, this was the challenge.  I was to go vegetarian – and my friend Celia (who already is vegetarian) was to go vegan for the week.  Oh, when I say I was going to go vegetarian I mean ‘vegetarian’.  A fish is not a vegetable.

So, how was it?  It was pretty easy to be fair, but with only 2 ‘highlights’.   The first was a client dinner at The Summer House, a beautiful restuarant on the canal in Maida Vale.  The problem was that there were two vegetarian’s – Elinor who’s a permanent vegetarian and me, the fly-by-night one.  However, they only had one vegetarian option on the rather extensive menu and then they only had one portion of that one option.  So, we shared that – which turned out to be a rather weird deep-fried risotto cake – and got them to de-king prawn some king prawn and tomato pasta dish which we also shared.  So, thumbs down to The Summer House but thumbs up for getting on with your colleagues better.

The second was having Ross, Gordon and Ben round for Sunday lunch before going to watch the Man Utd v Chelsea game in the pub.  Now, it’s May and therefore the perfect excuse to have roast lamb – a double hit of manliness.  But no, it was nut roast recipe instead which is something I’ve never cooked before and only eaten once – at Schumacher College on week 3 of the MSc.  But, it was pretty special.  So, it was an afternoon of yin and yang as we ate nut roast and gravy (made with ‘nutrional yeast flakes'(?)) which tasted very good – good enough for everyone to stop moaning about the fact that they were eating nut roast.  Man Utd won the game and no-one went for a burger afterwards.  Or so they said.

So, what did I learn?  That going vegetarian was easy and from now on I’ll be eating a lot less meat than before, but when it comes to going out, I think I’m going to stick to the meat/fish options – it’ll make it more ‘special’.  Just like the bacon sandwich on the morning after the week was up.

(As a post-script to this, here’s a US magazine who launched a Go Vegetarian 30 day challenge)

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Can you live on 100 items?

Here’s another interesting article, via Donald.  It’s from the New York Times and is about a movement in the States whereby people are cutting down what they own to 100 items.  So, out go the juicer and the toastie maker and in comes endless debates as to what constitutes ‘1 item’?  A pair of socks?  Cutlery?  Book collection?

Either way, it would be an interesting exercise to undertake.  Presumably, you’d start by keeping everything that you’d use every day?  Every week?  Then what?  But, by going through the process, you’re going to realise how much stuff you really need and more importantly, how much you don’t. 

In this way, it would be a little like camping as you quickly understand you can only take what you can carry and you try and extend the number of uses for the same thing.

Further, what this does is that it frames the debate about consumerism as a personal challenge you can discuss and compare with others undergoing the same task.  You can see what your 100 items are and compare them to others and debate the relative merits of different items, and the process of ‘One in, one out’ when you want to buy something new.

Perhaps most importantly, it turns the dry, negative ”Buy less stuff’ message into a game which you pit yourself against yourself and against others.  It makes you value what you’ve got more rather than feeling guilty about buying anything at all.  Good stuff indeed.

(as an addition to this post, there’s this site, the cult of less, whereby some American guy is trying to live with as little as possible – 2 boxes and 2 suitcases.  There’s an article about it here.)

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How oil can help Climate Change

Here’s an interesting article from the Guardian (thanks Donald). It’s entitled ‘Peak oil is the villain governments need’ and suggests that the arrival of Peak Oil and the accompanying rise in price for a barrel will quell our addiction to the black stuff ensuring we use less of it thus reducing our C02 emmissions.  Therefore Peak Oil becomes a sort of Trojan Horse for the Climate Change movement.

This is interesting because it suggests that it’s going to be good old hard cash that drives the Climate Change agenda rather than any desire to be green.  This is a bit ‘Route One’, although of course, money is always a significant variable in any decision about goods and services.  It’s also a bit depressing to think that the thing that will be the major variable to swtich behaviour will be cost, rather than some desire to do the right thing for the greater good.

However, I think that here are a number of issues with all of this and the concept of Peak Oil:

When will Peak Oil actually happen?  It’s been talked about for years and still hasn’t happened.  If they’re thinking of drilling the Arctic, then they’ll be thinking of drilling in the Antarctic and that could put Peak Oil back a few years.  And of course this will lead to an environmental disaster there, but then when has an environmental disaster ever stopped us drilling for oil? They’re still at it in the Gulf of Mexico.  Unfortunately, I think our desire for oil will always trump our concern for the environmental consequences.  Although I hope I’m proved wrong.

Peak Oil isn’t the end of oil anyway.  You’ve got all that energy inefficient oil shale and oil sands to get through first, if you can lobby and get past the Climate Change agenda.

The price of energy is vastly underpriced (in my opinion).  Say you pay £50 a month to heat your house in winter.  How much would you actually be prepared to pay to have a warm house when it’s below zero outside?  £50 a weekend?  The price of petrol and other forms of fossil fuels seem underpriced and they’re fairly inelastic so the price per barrel can go a lot higher, I reckon.  But then, the higher the price, the argument is less about what people are prepared to pay for oil, but rather the viability of making money out of other, alternative energy-generating  solutions.  But that’s a whole other thing.

Anyway, I’m sure that there are lots of other thoughts to come out of the article, but it’s a good ‘un.

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Clear and Present Danger

The thing about humans is that we usually only react to danger when it is immediate and apparent.  So, when the bear came into the cave of our neanderthal ancestors, their ‘flight or fight’ response was invoked and they either ran away or got out their spears and stood their ground.  Evolutionarily, we haven’t changed much and the problem with Climate Change is there is no Clear and Present Danger – you can’t see the build up of CO2 and the ice-caps are melting in far away lands.  It may well be that we’ve already passed the point of no return, but it’s possible that we still won’t change the way we behave towards until the polar bear is in our front lawn trying to jump off his passing piece of ice into the living room.

This isn’t great, so it’s good to look for examples of how consumer behaviour has dramatically changed before it’s too late and seeing what we can learn.  And there’s a great example of this at The Ministry of Food Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The Ministry of Food was set up in September 1939 at the outset of the Second World War to manage the nations food suppy.  One significant part of its work was a huge public information campaign to change how the Britain related to food in order to benefit the war effort.  It was a huge exercise which influenced every aspect of the nation’s relationship with food – from encouraging people to grow their own, to what to eat and the need to minimise wastage.  So, it is a great example of consumer change at a national level that provides many pointers for the modern day Climate Change fraternity.  These include:

Establish the result.

In war it’s fairly binary, you either win or lose.  But clearly linking your actions to the final, positive result in a simple, memorable statement is a good start.  It’s like ‘Just do it’, but with a purpose.

The interesting thing about Climate Change is how do we know when we’ve succeeded?  At the moment it’s framed in the negative – the seas won’t rise; C02 levels won’t exceed certain levels.   But where’s the positive?  People are usually motivated by the addition of something positive, rather than the absence of negative.  You don’t sell toothpaste on the fact that you’re teeth won’t fall out if you don’t use it.  You sell it in the fact you have shiny, healthy teeth if you do.

Who’s the enemy?

Related to the above point, in the war the enemy was clear – the Nazis – clearly represented by Hitler and the swastika.  They were the bad guys and clearly fitted into our age old concept of good vs. evil.  With Climate Change, who is the enemy that we can clearly identify with?  Is it Fossil Fuels?  Oil companies?  The West?  The East?  People going to the next Copenhagen?  And how do you represent whichever you chose in a simple way that everyone can understand, as an idea and as an image?  In a way, the Nazis made it easy for us to identify them and therefore to hate them.  

The Ministry of Food took advantage of this and was able to not only talk about the positive consequence of acting in the right way, they also communicate what would happen if you didn’t. 

Be specific. 

There’s something really interesting in this, which is about linking a seemingly minor action to the broader war effort and ultimate victory.  A lot of the behaviour change around Climate Change is like this – use less plastic bags, turn the heating down etc. etc.  But, do we ever see them connected to the bigger goal in such a simple and effective way as this:

Another, and perhaps more powerful example than this was in the exhibtion.  It encouaged you do eat potatoes andnot bread with you meal if you wanted to fill yourself up.  The rationale was that the UK could produce its own potatoes but it had to import the wheat to make bread from North America.  The wheat would come over in ships which ran the risk of being torpedoed by German subs.  So, the message was ‘Eat Potatoes and Not Bread and Save Lives’. 


This might be seen as a patronising now, but a great deal of the Ministry of Food output educated the nation about food.  From what size of alloment you need and what to plant in it, to what food has the most nutritonal value, to how to build a chicken run.  They produced an endless stream of informative, imaginative and educative material to keep people interested and motivated to act. 

The Climate Change movement seems to be doing a good job of education (in the UK) and we becoming clear about what steps we need to take to minimise our own carbon emissions.  However, if we were able to ‘Establish the Result’ and define a clear enemy could we expect to see a higher take-up of the activities we know we are supposed to perform? 

Extend the metaphor. 

This is a small point, but interesting.  Below you can see how they extended the idea of the Allies vs. the Nazis into every part of the campaign in how they educated people about different varieties of guest in your garden:

Overall, when you go through the exhibition, you get a sense of the huge volume and variety of output that the Ministry of Food produced.  From posters to pamphlets; from Food Flashes before movies to books.  They seemed to cover every relevant message in every available outlet.  I wonder what the equivalent media spend woudl have been today, but it seems likely that we haven’t seen many campaigns the size of it since.  There is a degree of realism required when it comes to Climate Change – could the government ever pull off anything of this scale again?  It could be argued that the government would need to spend even more money to turn things around because the market is saturated with commercial messages encouraging consumers to ‘buy and do more’, when any message from them would effectively be to ‘do less’.  So, perhaps part of the strategy would be to halt some or all commerical advertising.  Which wouldn’t go down well.

But did it work?  Well we won the war, so people who did dig, did help the victory.  But there was this more informative fact at the start of the exhibition which shows that they did manage to invoke a huge consumer change across the nation which would have resulted in thousands of people spending millions of hours in a new type of relationship with food, for the greater good.  The challenge is, can we replicate something like this again for the benefit of saving the planet, rather than just Britain?:

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To get people to do less, you have to give them more

In doing a bit of part time tutoring with a friend at the London College of Communications, we asked the students to come up with a simple, creative solution to a difficult problem.

The problem was ‘How do you get people to eat less meat?’

This is interesting of course from a sustainability point of view as Nicholas Stern says, the single thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprint the most is to become vegetarian.  Now, imagining that marketing can change people’s belief system about meat and get them to cut it out altogether is too big a challenge.  However, encouraging meat-eaters to eat less meat seems a reasonable and achievable thing for marketing to tackle.

The students came back with a range of interesting ideas.  These included humanizing the animals – by giving the chicken a name like ‘Eric’ in a Disney way –  so people would feel guilty about eating something with a familiar first name.  Or telling people that eating meat was bad for you and placing a bag of vegetables and pulses next to the meat with the same nutritional content.  Or even promoting Fundamentalist Christianity because apparently in the Bible it says ‘Thou shall not eat animals’ or similar.

But whilst there were lots of interesting and potentially valid ideas, the majority avoided addressing the reason why people eat meat in the first place – it’s really tasty.  There’s just no denying that a bacon sandwich, a well cooked fillet steak or a Sunday roast tastes fantastic.

Generating ideas which side-step this basic truth seem less like to succeed than an idea that would in someway address it.

Now, you could be comparative – ‘Is that tasty burger worth a painful death for a cow?’.   But I don’t think that this is going to work.  People know that burgers come from cows and they still eat them.  Telling them the cow suffered before it died isn’t really a big deal if you’ve accepted that it’s going to be killed to be eaten anyway.

So, I don’t think that coming up with righteous reasons not to eat meat that sound like they’ve come from a bunch of vegetarian do-gooders is ever going to work.  Because they won’t embrace the fundamental truth that people like eating meat because it tastes great.

Instead, what if you embraced this fact and put that at the heart of your message in a way that satisfied your objective of encouraging people to eat less meat?

There was one student who did just this.  Their idea was about encouraging people to eat meat once a week because it would taste better.

To put that into a proposition would be something like: Meat tastes even better the less often you eat it

This takes the truth about why people eat meat and makes you understand how you can savour and heighten the delicious flavour by experiencing on a less regular basis.  And it makes sense.  People understand the basic principle of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and that you appreciate something more when you’ve had to wait for it/save up for it/look forward to.

So, if you have the ham, cheese and pickle sandwich every day, then the meat for dinner might not taste as good as if you just went for the cheese and pickle ones instead.  Or if you have a non-meat dinner a couple of nights a week, then it makes the beef on Saturday night and the roast chicken on a Sunday taste even more special.  This isn’t about getting people to stop eating meat altogether, it’s about reducing the number of meals eaten a week which include meat by one of two, which would add up to a lot of animals in the course of a year.

This sort of thinking seems to be absent from a lot of messaging about climate change.  We seem to be stuck in a world where the messaging has been written by the equivalent of the vegetarian do-gooders.  Take less flights, use less plastic bags, turn the heating down, buy less stuff.  This may work for the Green Do-Gooders who seem to have written them, but I doubt it’s going to work for the mainstream majority who like flying, using plastic bags, having warm houses and buying stuff more than worrying about the possibility of something called Climate Change.

The messaging needs to evolve and start with embracing why people enjoy doing these things in a way that ultimately encourages them to do less of them, rather than starting from the premise that doing them at all is bad.

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E.ON-ize everything

The E.ON work is interesting, because it does the rare and unusual thing of encouraging people to use less of its product.  In comparison to all other company-funded advertising,  ‘The message is the reverse of the medium’ if you will.

As Brand and Communications Director Jeremy Davies (ex-JWT on ntl:) puts it: 

“We genuinely want to engage with people about the energy issues that matter to them. We wanted to give consumers a clear, simple and honest answer: helping people use less energy, means they will have lower bills and lower bills mean happier customers who want to stay with us for longer.”

So, as you’d expect, it’s still about the £, but it’s about measuring the Lifetime Value of customers, with the understanding that you’ll take a hit on the ‘Average Revenue Per Customer’ per year, but you’ll keep them for more years.

The interesting thing about this is that it counters the entire concept of advertising and marketing.  This seems to be the logic for everyone else:

Every company promotes higher consumption.

They need to sell more to grow.

Because every company promotes higher consumption, overall, the market will grow.

With enough markets growing, the economy grows.

E.ON is different because it promotes lower consumption.

As a result of this and customers saving money, it will steal share from the competition.

If they are successful, then the total revenue from their growing customer base will be greater than the total loss of revenue from encouraging all customers to use less.  So the company will grow.

But what happens if they’re extremely successful?  What if this approach ensured that they achieved a market dominant position?  At some point, they would be responsible for a decline in the total market size.  This is because the majority of the population (i.e. E.ON customers) would use less energy year on year.

What would happen then? 

Would the government try and break them up for being anti-competitive (or because they weren’t making enough from taxes from the category)

With fewer potential customers coming in, E.ON would see it’s own growth slow and actually start to decline as their consumers continued to use less and less.

If that happened, and they stuck to their guns, E.ON would have to expand into other businesses in order to maintain their own growth.  In the same way that Virgin enters new categories with its customer service/consumer champion philosophy, then E.ON could E.ON-ize categories with its ‘Use us and use less’ philosophy.  So, they could reduce obesity by encouraging people to eat less.  Or reduce petrol consumption by producing extremely fuel-efficient vehicles.

Or maybe other brands could learn from and replicate the E.ON strategy for themselves, before E.ON get there and beat them to it.

Here’s the copy in full:

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