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Sustainable Marketing vs. Hard-Wired Human Behaviour

Researchers believe ecologically harmful human tendencies may be hard-wired, but strategic marketing can mitigate our bad behaviour.

Five Ways to Disarm Our Environmentally Destructive Genetic Tendencies

People like to think they behave in environmentally conscious ways. We plan to drive hybrids, eat local, and switch to green household products, but few of us ever do. More often than not, we engage in self-benefitting, wasteful activities that damage the environment. Are our actions a byproduct of privileged, consumer-driven lifestyles? Researchers Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt believe ecologically harmful human tendencies may be hard-wired, but that strategic marketing can mitigate some of our bad behaviour.

Genetics Loads the Gun…

Evolution takes thousands of years to occur. The human brain evolved slowly; survival required us to adapt to a gradually changing environment. In recent years, the environment has changed faster than our brains could evolve, and once-adaptive tendencies are now contributing to global sustainability issues. Griskevicius and colleagues say we are still primed with five ancestral traits that together create the perfect storm for environmental degradation:

  1. Being self-interested: Prioritizing yourself over the group to ensure the survival of your own genes.

  2. Striving for status: Desiring higher status than your peers to outcompete them for mates. Status today means having material assets that are often wasteful and resource-depleting.

  3. Unconsciously copying others: Wanting to learn from others through imitation, as opposed to learning through our own trial-and-error. Sadly, this means when others are neglectful of the environment, so are we.

  4. Being shortsighted: Our predisposition to value the present over the future, explaining why environmental options with long-term pay-back (e.g. investing in renewable energy) are often discounted.

  5. Disregarding intangible issues: Adapting our behaviour only when it interacts with our senses (e.g. learning to avoid open flames, or food that makes us ill). Today we rarely see, smell or feel our interactions with the environment and tend to disregard sustainability issues that lack immediate consequence.

In a nutshell, it all comes down to the survival of our genetic code, no matter the cost. But gone are the days of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, meager subsistence, and sleeping in caves. Should we let these five traits define who we are today? The authors say no; they believe we can outsmart our innate tendencies with the right marketing.

…Behaviour Pulls the Trigger

Marketing that targets genetics can effectively influence human behaviour. Food advertisers have done it for years:

Think about it. Besides the obvious answer that chocolate chip cookies are infinitely more delectable than steamed greens, why do you think we hunger for sugar-laden, fatty foods? Evolution can explain: fresh meat and ripe, fleshy fruits were rare for hunter-gatherers. Fat and sugar calories were precious, especially when eaten together. Built into our DNA is a craving for this special combination, even in today’s world where such calories are abundant. So when ice-cream companies market ‘Double-Fudge Brownie Swirl’ as the new summer flavour, you know they’re targeting your undying sweet tooth for both fat and sugar…one that was millions of years in the making.

Advertisers and marketing teams can use this knowledge of evolution for good; our ancestral characteristics can spur the creation of strategic marketing campaigns designed to offset bad behaviour. If Ben & Jerry’s can do it, so can we.

How to Thwart Our Inherent, Genetic Shortcomings

  1. Being self-interested: The Theory of Kin Selection suggests we are more concerned for immediate and close kin than perfect strangers. This can be advantageous when counteracting our sense of self-interest; marketing should substitute recycle-for-the-greater-good-type messaging for ones that hit closer to home: “Save water to ensure your children will have enough.”

  2. Striving for status: According to the idea of competitive altruism, individuals with self-sacrificing qualities attract more mates than those who act purely out of self-interest. Marketing can activate people’s desire for relative status by recognizing the environmental leaders among us. For example, marketing that praises Prius-driving consumers who selflessly paid a premium for their car can boost consumer interest. This is especially effective in public settings—the desire for status increases one’s need to appear altruistic and compete for recognition.

  3. Unconsciously copying others: Marketing fails when it underscores how environmentally depraved the majority of us are. “Over 300 million water bottles go to landfill every day” and similar messaging can actually cause people to throw out bottles when they know millions of others are being thrown out, too. Instead, marketing should emphasize the growing number of environmental do-gooders. The authors use the example of hotel cards requesting that guests reuse their towels. Towel reuse was unchanged when the card said “Please be environmentally friendly and reuse towels”, but rose by 34% when people read “Many of our guests reuse towels to reduce water consumption. Please consider doing the same.”

  4. Being shortsighted: Evolution tells us females are often less impulsive and more forward-thinking than their male counterparts. They evolved with vested interests in offspring survival and longevity, suggesting they are better recipients of environmental messages that concern the wellbeing of future generations. Darwinian Theory suggests that if females find certain qualities appealing, males will alter their behaviour accordingly. A study by Gotts and van Vugt (2011) found women consider men who care about sustainability to be more sexually attractive. Marketing can therefore counteract shortsightedness by playing to men’s need for reproductive success and making sustainable choices seem desirable.

  5. Disregarding intangible issues: Environmental marketing should scrap the wistfully principled messages about Mother Nature, and instead harness people’s sensitivity to visceral changes in their surroundings. The threat of thick, stinking smog clouding the sun and polluted, foul-tasting water will trigger knee-jerk reactions to environmental damage more effectively than talks of slow-melting, far-away icecaps.

Smart Marketing

Marketing teams are ignorant to discount the strength of millions of years of evolution. With the right environmental messaging, we can outsmart our own genetic code to benefit consumers, firms, society, and the planet.

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  • Lauren Turner

    Lauren completed a Bachelor of Health Sciences and a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability at Western University. She interned with the Network for Business Sustainability as part of the MES program, and continued to edit and contribute content to the network in the years following. She later completed a Master’s in Insurance and Risk Management from the MIB School of Management in Italy, where she focused on environmental risk mitigation strategies in the face of changing market sentiments towards low carbon. Lauren has worked primarily in the non-profit and higher-ed sectors in Toronto and London over the past decade. Her work has revolved around corporate social responsibility in mining and minerals governance, stakeholder engagement, project and program management, and writing/editing for corporate audiences. Her writing has focused on the intersection of sustainability and finance, access to capital, investor risk, consumer behaviour, and sustainable marketing. She is interested in conversations around how industry can hedge against risk and benefit financially from improving the sustainability of their operations.

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