Most people want to be sustainable, but have a hard time taking the necessary actions.

According to Nielsen, a data analytics company, sustainability is the latest consumer trend. Their research shows chocolate, coffee and bath products with sustainability claims grew much faster than their traditional counterparts. Yet only 0.2 per cent of chocolates and 0.4 per cent of coffees have environmental claims.

How can we translate this consumer sustainability buzz into actual action? To find out, our group reviewed 320 academic articles in the top consumer behaviour journals and identified five routes to shift consumers towards sustainable choices: social influence, habits, individual self, feelings and cognitions, and tangibility. Together, these make a handy acronym, SHIFT.

Social influence

Humans are social animals and will follow the actions of others, especially on ethical issues. When people learn they are using more energy than their neighbours, they decrease their energy usage.

But what if the sustainable behaviour has yet to be established? For example, how does one convince people to install solar panels if no one in their neighbourhood is doing it? A “brand ambassador” can be invaluable. Solar advocates who had installed solar panels in their own homes were able to recruit 63 per cent more residents to purchase and install solar panels.

For ethical behaviours, learning about the behaviours of others can be motivating. In one example, when business students on a college campus heard that computer science students were better at composting and recycling, they more than doubled their efforts.

Habits

To build a new sustainable habit, one must first break bad habits. This is easiest when someone is experiencing big life changes, such as moving, getting married or starting a new job. In one study, people who had recently moved cut their car usage almost in half.

Another strategy is to apply penalties for bad behaviour, rather than rewarding good behaviour. There is a possibility, however, that people will return to their old ways if the penalty is removed and the new habit isn’t formed.

To build new habits, it can be helpful to make the sustainable action easy to do, provide timely prompts, offer incentives to help get the new behaviour started and provide real-time feedback about actions over an extended period of time. A review of feedback techniques finds when real-time energy use is shared directly with homeowners, electricity consumption dropped by five to 15 per cent.

Individual self

Sustainability can appear more attractive when the personal benefits such as health or product quality are highlighted. Emphasizing self-efficacy also works. When people know their actions matter, they make greener choices.

Self-consistency is also important. People like their words and actions to be consistent. Often one environmental commitment can snowball into other actions and changes over time. For example, someone who insulates their house to improve energy efficiency may be more likely to unplug electric devices when they leave for a vacation.

Likewise, consumers expect companies to be consistent. In one study, when a hotel made visible environmental efforts (such as offering compostable toiletries) and asked guests to save energy, guests reduced their energy usage by 12 per cent. In the absence of visible efforts, the appeal appeared hypocritical and energy use increased.