How far should companies go to try and make consumers act responsibly?

One of the CSR challenges I find most exciting is consumer behavior change. It’s not just about how companies educate and influence consumers, but to what extent they should take responsibility for consumers’ behavior. Should they follow Unilever which is looking for ways to get people to use less water when they shower (showerpooling anyone?) or should they, just like McDonald’s, leave the full responsibility to the consumer to decide what’s good for them?

This was the topic I chose to discuss earlier this month with attendees of the COMMIT! Forum as part of a Blogger Breakfast, an event where seven writers, myself included, moderated discussions on different CSR issues. Hosted by CSRwire, this was a great opportunity to listen and talk to CSR professionals and hear what they think about this challenge.

Now, this might sounds like a cliché, but I’ll say it nevertheless – it’s not easy to implement CSR and sometimes we, the writers, tend to underestimate the challenge. Therefore, this breakfast was not just an opportunity for writers to stimulate discussions on issues we find important, but also a reminder for us of the hard work CSR professionals are doing and the magnitude of the challenges they’re facing.

Our table included a mix of representatives of companies, such as MetLife and Campbell Soup and organizations like Future 500 and the Better Business Bureau. After drinking enough coffee to have a serious conversation at 7:30am, we started talking about CSR and consumer behavior change from the perspective of the consumer. We wanted to understand why consumers buy one product rather than another.

Risa De Ferrari of Future 500 said, and everyone seemed to agree with her, that even with green consumer the decisions have more to do with the health and wellness benefits of the products and less with the notion of ‘I want to save the planet.’ Therefore companies should be promote products that are more sustainable by approaching consumers on a more personal level, meeting these core needs. One interesting point from Niki Kelley of Campbell Soup was that the personal connection can also be achieved through philanthropy programs or community involvement.

The next point we considered is the limit of the company’s responsibility.  An interesting example Risa De Ferrari gave was packaging – we want companies to focus in their mission statements and actions on bettering society (shared value), but should operational elements like the packaging be part of a visionary mission? We might want to see companies making their packaging as sustainable as possible, but at the same time, some companies will argue that investing resources in packaging will take attention away from their true mission. It’s also very costly, so eventually such effort might even hurt their mission by making their products less affordable.

We then turned to discussing effective behavior change strategies. There was a consensus around the table that Unilever’s Five Levers for Change seems to reflect the required ingredients of successful behavior change. The problem with many sustainable products though is that they just don’t meet these criteria – they’re not easy to acquire or are just not rewarding, for example.

One important element – that wasn’t part of Unilever’s Five Levers strategy – is trust. One company that managed to establish trust in its products is TOMS with its One for One model – where a pair of shoes is donated for every pair purchased. Consumers believe in TOMS mission, it has been well-communicated and well executed. The approach has been particularly effective with Millennials, who seem to appreciate brands that deliver this sort of value (as part of what BBMG called the triple-value proposition).

Finally, we looked for examples at the starting point of this behavior change challenge. Risa De Ferrari reminded us that we live in a society that has been shaped by consumerism – the business model companies now use might not be sustainable for the long term. Joshua Wiener of MetLife asked whether we have enough sustainable alternatives to make a difference – for example, what should people that are not satisfied with the way Apple handles the issues in its supply chain do? Do they really have alternatives that are substantially better?

The discussion ended with participants agreeing that many questions still wait for answers when it comes to consumer behavior change. We also agreed that, in any case, people have a lot of power to shape reality. Overtime, if people care about sustainability, then what’s going to happen is that some companies will get it, lead the way, and flourish, while others will slowly become less competitive.

So did we get it right? I hope so, but I guess we’ll need to meet again for a breakfast in five or ten years to check it out.

[Image credit: COMMIT! Forum]

This article was originally published 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.