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What really inspires millennials to live more sustainably?

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Unlike much market research, an on-site eye tracking study showed people’s actual reactions in everyday life environments to messages and products, rather than just recording what they said. Photograph: BT

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “What really inspires millennials to live more sustainably?” was written by David Benady, for theguardian.com on Monday 22nd December 2014 09.46 UTC

The task of persuading the public to live more sustainably is getting a boost from the latest technology which is showing how we react to sustainability messages in the real world.

The rapid uptake of smartphones and tablets is helping spread the message about sustainable living with “circular economy” digital platforms such as Airbnb and car trip sharing scheme BlaBlaCar, making sustainability cool with the young. Meanwhile, social media has proved to be a powerful tool for promoting the benefits of sustainable living.

But businesses are struggling to find ways of coaxing consumers into choosing more environmentally friendly products and services and perhaps pay a little more for them. Recent research shows that the important younger audience of millennials aged 18 – 34 are eager to help save the planet, but they are unclear on how they can contribute. Millennials are often skeptical about the claims of businesses and they need to be inspired by brands to get involved with sustainable living.

Olivier Oullier, professor of behavioural and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University who designs engagement and behaviour change strategies for public and private organisations worldwide, has run research into millennials’ perceptions of sustainability.

Oullier says that the tone of voice brands adopt in their messages is vital. “Millennials don’t want brands telling them what to do, they want to be inspired, they want to see leadership. “There is limited time and attention that people have. The easier we can make it for them to adopt new sustainable consumption patterns, the better. We need to make it easy for them not only to understand but also to visualise the change they are going to make and its concrete consequences.”

Sustainability needs to be something millennials can take part in rather than some remote aim. Some companies such as Opower are using a combination of behavioural insights and digital services to help people cut down on energy usage and save money, by allowing consumers to compare their usage to other people’s.

Oullier undertook a research project with the World Economic Forum and its partners that used a unique combination of portable eye tracking and neuroimaging technology to see how young people respond to sustainability messages from brands, first in a laboratory environment and then in a supermarket setting.

The research showed that millennials think sustainability means a product will last a long time, rather than understanding it in the sense of saving energy or ethical trade. They responded better to direct and concrete calls to action, such as saving electricity or reducing water consumption than more general messages and fancy vocabulary about the environment.

But millennials were not prepared to sacrifice product quality in the name of sustainability, the research showed. Messages which talk about millennials as “trend setters” and try to engage them with a general awareness about sustainability were found to be ineffective, as they detract from focus on the product.

However, the research did show that millennials like and respond to messages which encourage them to be socially conscious and positive about the future. A powerful message is to talk about leaving a better world for future generations.

The research was conducted globally in diverse markets including China, India and the UK. Unlike much market research, the on-site eye tracking study showed people’s actual reactions in everyday life environments to messages and products, rather than just recording what they said. This allowed Oullier to measure the gap between millennials’ intentions and actions.

The research found that helping people visualise the effects of sustainability and the outcomes of the actions taken is crucial, says Oullier. When asking people to give money to fight malaria, they need information to help them visualise how the money is spent, for instance, by telling them that donating £7 will help provide one mosquito net.

“You convert a monetary value into a human value, I call this ‘brain currency’, something that is easy to understand as it makes it easy for us to picture what the donation will help for,” Oullier says.

Likewise, describing air pollution in Paris as akin to passive smoking is a powerful way of illustrating the damage that pollution does, rather than just relying on a statistical analysis that many would struggle to understand.

A huge boost for sustainability is coming from digital connectivity, with social media creating new ways of influencing people’s activities, attitudes and behaviour. At BT’s Better Future Forum earlier this year, participants discussed ways that social media and connectivity were helping people learn about sustainability.

As Mark Earls, founder of agency HERD Consulting said: “The really interesting thing about the wider adoption of digital tech is that it makes the choices and enthusiasms of others more visible rather than less visible.”

So social media has the power to enhance peer group pressure, and spread the word about sustainability. The advantage of social media is that influence spreads through sharing and encouragement, rather than by pressuring people to conform.

Connectivity is also enhancing sustainability by opening up people’s eyes to the ways products and services are manufactured along the supply chain. For instance, slow fashion startup Zady, which aims to create longer-lasting clothes, shows films about the production process of the clothes on its website, including a film of the people involved in making the products. Transparency is an integral part of boosting sustainability, since knowledge about production allows people to choose processes that are more ethical and better for the environment.

Technology can open people’s eyes to sustainability, but messages need to be kept simple and clear. The focus should be first on creating great products that serve a need with built in environmental and social benefits, but technology also has a role in recognising what really transforms our behaviour towards living more sustainable lives.

BT is a founding partner of Collectively, a global not-for-profit digital platform to inspire and empower people to take action and live more sustainable lives

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