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Getting Sustainability to Stick: Driving Long-term Habits in Consumers

New research from Yale SOM Professor Ravi Dhar and colleagues shows that climate friendly reminders work best when placed in the early part of a consumer's decision-making process.

Do those billboards or posters reminding you to limit the usage of plastic bottles or opting out of plastic utensils do any good towards developing climate friendly habits? Turns out they do, but it depends on when the reminders are received during a consumer's decision-making process.

New research led by Ravi Dhar from Yale SOM and Eleanor Putnam-Farr from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business finds that climate friendly reminders are most effective when placed in the early parts of a consumer's decision-making. "Many people have intentions of making climate friendly choices. However, one of the challenges is figuring out how to help them follow through on those intentions," says Putnam-Farr.

In fact, a 2021 study by Pew Research highlighted that 64% of Americans believed in protecting the planet but only 24% took steps towards it.

For this study, Dhar and his colleagues wanted to figure out whether climate-friendly reminders help people ingrain long-term, environmentally friendly habits. And if so, when are these reminders most effective in influencing the customer's behavior?

They started with an online pilot study, where participants were given two options to place posters for reusable water bottles to determine what they thought would work best to motivate the consumer. The two places, which fell into different timepoints of a customer's decision making, were near the office desk or near the water stations. The participants were informed that most reusable water bottles were kept in offices and dorms.

Findings showed that most participants, many of whom were sustainability or culinary managers, believed that displaying the posters closer to the water stations would be more effective.

"Many still believe that the reminder will be more useful at the dispenser, even though it would require many people to return to their offices or dorms to retrieve their water bottle," the researchers write.

Next, the authors conducted a seven-week, behavioral study in Google's campus to see how the experiment would play out in a real-world scenario. In different offices on the campus, researchers placed reminders of using reusable bottles either at an employee's desk (where people normally place their reusable bottles) or near the water station.

The findings were very different from what the participants of the previous online experiment had intuitively believed. It showed that in offices where the reminders were placed near work desks, employees tended to continue their habit of using reusable bottles, even after the posters were removed.  

The authors say that when reminders are near the desk, people capitalize on an opportunity to change the consumption. "This is when the behavior is more malleable, as it requires only a few steps to retrieve a water bottle when someone is reminded near the desk," they write. In a final experiment, the researchers wanted to see if they could replicate their findings from the Google campus experiment to other settings.

They recruited 300 participants, potential grocery shoppers, and randomly assigned one of the three reminders to each of them: bag-specific reminder, general shopping reminder, or no reminder and asked them to imagine that they were off to buy groceries.

Next, they asked the participants in the bag-specific reminder category to think about their preferred shopping store and imagine that their store had given them a door hook to hang their reusable grocery bags on the back of their doors. The bag reminder significantly increased participants’ likelihood of bringing a reusable bag compared with a general shopping reminder.

The bag hooks served as a contextual cue for people who were simulating leaving their house to head to the store, the authors say, adding that sustainability-specific reminders were equally effective in increasing overall consumption and significantly more effective at increasing climate-friendly behaviors.

Based on all the findings the authors conclude that to maximize effectiveness, reminders should be placed early in the consumption decision process and refer to contextual triggers that enable habit formation. "Reminders after the consumer has already forgotten the bottle could lead to feelings of aversion and guilt toward the reminder message or even the messenger."

Since these reminders cost very little as it only requires printing the messages, it could also leave marketers with more cash to increase investments in other areas of sustainable consumption, such as sparkling water dispensers, the authors say.

Read the full paper or discover more insights from YCCI here.