How organisations can turn ‘intent’ to act sustainably into ‘action’ 

Consumers are becoming increasingly vocal about a need for sustainable change in society. While it is encouraging to see this growth in people’s intent to act and buy more sustainably, their actual behaviour is lagging behind.

How can organisations help inspire this behaviour? Through consumer psychology, SKIM’s psychological distance framework can help explain why this lag is happening and offer tangible communication guidelines on how to turn intent into action to build a more sustainable world.

SKIM’s psychological distance framework 

Before diving into how it applies to sustainability, let’s first review what psychological distance is and how it works in relation to general goods and services. 

Psychological distance is the mental distance we experience between ourselves and a proposed scenario: the more likely it is that we think the proposed scenario is going to happen to us, the lower the psychological distance. When lower psychological distance is experienced in relation to products or services, consumers have a clearer and more tangible (rather than abstract) idea of what they are going to achieve by using that product or service. This generates more desirable product judgements and helps create a match between the positive product experience the consumer is looking for and what the brand offers, driving interest and ultimately purchase intent as a result.

Psychological distance exists on four main dimensions: temporal (distance in time), spatial (physical distance), social (similarity to consumers’ own identity), and hypothetical (perceived likelihood of occurring).

The psychological distance of sustainability goals 

Looking at these four dimensions in the context of sustainability, it quickly becomes clear why sustainability is such a challenging topic and why people’s intent does not always equal action.

Sustainability-related problems and solutions often do not affect people immediately (temporal distance), and those people it does tend to affect may be different from you (social distance). The effects can be far away from where you live (spatial distance), and despite increased knowledge and awareness, the longer-term effects are mostly unknown or not yet experienced (hypothetical distance).

Therefore, marketers are faced with a fundamental challenge when developing sustainability-related messaging: Sustainability primarily affects the world as a whole in the long term, rather than the individual consumer in the short term.

In our efforts to create a solution, it is important to break down the challenge even further through SKIM’s Two Gap Sustainability Paradigm.

Closing the ‘urgency’ gap within the sustainability context 

The first gap is between the urgency of the problem and consumers’ current place in space and time. When there is little awareness of and urgency about a problem, there is also little motivation to do something about it. Though sustainability might be a known concept, many consumers are still unaware of the specifics of many sustainability issues. 

Additionally, consumers may feel that sustainability issues are ‘far off’ in the future and/or happening in a distant part of the globe, and thus do not have much of an effect on their personal lives. 

To increase perceived urgency and encourage action, sustainability communication should focus on bringing the problem psychologically closer. 

Brands can do this by focusing on the local consequences and how the problem is affecting the present or near future. For example, “Help reduce global warming (problem), which brings a daily (temporal) rising threat (urgency) of floods (hypothetical) to your home town (spatial/social).”

Closing the ‘impact’ gap between consumer actions and sustainable outcomes 

Second, brands need to close the gap between the action a consumer can take and the desired sustainable outcome. When consumers perceive their actions to have an impact, they are more likely to feel the reward of contributing to a greater cause – and this is where the societal and personal consumer benefits meet. 

The knowledge that changes and progress are within their control helps translate motivation into action and makes people more likely to act in a sustainable way or choose a more sustainable offering over one that is less so. 

This can be done by showing the consumer that behaving in a certain way or choosing a certain product will have a tangible impact (hypothetical) locally (spatial), as well as impacting their community or people like them (social) soon (temporal). 

To illustrate, consider the product claims listed below: 

• “For each pack you enjoy, we plant trees” (minimises hypothetical distance – consumer can imagine how the product contributes to reforestation) 

• “For cleaner water tomorrow, we help reduce chemical waste today” (minimises temporal distance – consumer can understand when the impact will take place based on their current action) 

• “20% of profits will be donated to helping local farmers” (minimises spatial distance – consumer knows that their local community is impacted) 

• “Ensuring healthier food for you and your family, with pesticide-free grown ingredients” (minimises social distance – target consumer feels this is for [people like] them)

Communications guidelines for driving more sustainable consumer behaviour

The four dimensions of psychological distance offer tangible handrails which can help bring sustainability issues and potential solutions psychologically closer to the consumer. Additionally, there are a few general principles that help further reduce psychological distance and turn intent into action. 

Use simple words: Simple and unambiguous language is required for consumers to understand what is being said. Without comprehension, there is no meaning, and without meaning the chances of successfully communicating the sustainability issue or solution are limited. Hence, the psychological distance is not reduced and as a result there is a lack of action.

Be specific: Being specific in describing what value is being offered helps create a vivid picture of the brand promise in the consumer’s mind about how the consumer can contribute to a more sustainable future by purchasing your product, e.g. 100% biodegradable formula. This reduces the perceived ‘urgency’ and ‘impact’ gaps and significantly increases your chances of triggering people to act in a sustainable way.

Avoid a negative tone: In general, people’s aspirations are positive, so avoiding a negative tone of voice is key. A negative tonality could create a distortion between the positive desired end state people have in mind and the message projected in our communications. For sustainability-related communications this can be extra challenging, as educating on the urgency of a problem often requires highlighting a negative. While it is necessary to briefly touch upon the severity of the problem, sustainability communications should primarily focus on how the organisation or brand contributes to people’s aspirations for a brighter and more sustainable future. 

An example of a sustainable benefit that meets the three guidelines above is: “100% recyclable packaging”

How does this claim help contribute to an individual’s aspirational sustainability goal? 

Recycling is a simple word that consumers are familiar with. It is also specific in that “100%” leaves no doubt as to whether all the packaging is recyclable. The specificity also makes it easy to envision that for every bottle or wrapper they recycle, they prevent one piece of single-use plastic from entering the environment. Lastly, its tone focuses on the positive of doing something good – recycling – rather than emphasising negatives around reduced landfill or ocean pollution.

Applying consumer psychology to further optimise sustainability communications 

Tapping into consumer psychology can be an effective way to optimise product content, messaging, and visuals – and the realm of sustainability messaging is no different. We hope these guidelines help you create more meaningful connections with consumers, drive consideration, and maintain relevance in an increasingly sustainability-focused world

This article was first published in the Q3 2022 edition of Asia Research Media

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