Are Company Goals at Odds with Consumer Wants?

Companies keep struggling with the challenge of changing consumer behavior. Fisk Johnson, CEO of SC Johnson explained the rationale behind it: “Companies need to offer responsible products and operate sustainably. But importantly, consumers also need to demand, and then choose, green options.” In some cases, it goes beyond convincing consumers to buy greener products – Unilever, for example, is looking for ways to get people to wash their clothes in lower temperatures or use less water when they shower.

On one hand looking into changing consumers’ habits makes sense given that responsible companies want to see greater demand for their sustainable products, not to mention that any attempt to reduce their footprint requires them to take a broader look at their value chain. Consumers’ use of Unilever products, for example, represents 68 percent of the company’s carbon footprint, so Unilever can’t really halve its footprint, as it aims to do by 2020, without changing consumers’ behavior.

On the other hand, isn’t there something wrong with such intervention in people’s lives? Should companies tell us how much time to use to take a shower? Or in other words: Should the responsibility of business be limited or limitless when it comes to consumers?

One approach to this question is presented by McDonald’s. When asked on their UK stakeholder engagement website, “Does McDonald’s take responsibility for the obesity problem?” McDonald’s replied:

“McDonald’s objective is to ensure that its customers are offered a choice of foods with full nutritional information so that individuals can make the decision themselves, or on behalf of their children, on what they eat as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It is not the company’s role to dictate what people should or shouldn’t eat. McDonald’s aim is to be as open and honest about sourcing of food as possible.”

In other words, according to McDonald’s, companies should offer consumers a variety of options (from Big Mac to garden salad), provide them with all the information they need to make informed decisions and stop right there. The rest, a la McDonald’s, is upon the consumers – it’s their life, their health and their money, and if they want to make healthy choices, it is perfectly fine, but if they want cheeseburger and fries, they will be also greeted with a smile.

The other approach, which I guess Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans would probably call nanny-company, is probably best represented today by Unilever. Once Unilever decided its goal is to “grow the business while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing the positive contribution which we make to society,” and with most of its footprint created by consumers’ use of its products, the company understood it needs to find ways to actively reshape customer behavior.

To make it even more complicated for Unilever, it’s not the products that make the main impact, but other elements involved in their use, such as heated water in the case of soaps, showers gels and shampoos. As a result, Unilever has no choice but to get itself inside people’s showers in order to find ways to reduce the amount of heated water consumers use. The company actually did it literally by conducting the first ever UK shower study, monitoring actual shower behavior and finding that the average Briton spends eight minutes in the shower.

Unilever still works on this challenge, looking for innovative ideas on how to reduce shower times, reduce water usage and generate warm water more efficiently. While some might feel a little intimidated about Unilever messing with their shower habits, Unilever wants you to know it has no desire to act like a Big Brother and kick you out of the shower when the company thinks your time is up. All Unilever wants to do, explains CEO Paul Polman, is to inspire consumers to rethink their practices:

“If we are going to halve our environmental impact and help a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being – we have to inspire consumers to choose more sustainable products and adopt more sustainable habits when they cook, clean and wash with our products.”

Both approaches give consumers the final word on which products to buy and what lifestyle to pursue. Yet, one wants to minimally intervene in shaping consumers’ decisions while the other wants to play a bigger role in shaping them. Each approach represents a different vision and set of values and only time will tell which one is more effective – will consumers learn by themselves to choose ‘good’ over ‘bad,’ or will they need a little push (or a big one) to make the right decisions, including getting out of the shower in time?

This article was originally posted on Triple Pundit

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.