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What If … Consumers Took More Extreme Measures to Help Drive Sustainable Behaviour?

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What’s Changing?
Potential Implications

Canada 2030 Series

Canada is experiencing significant social and technological changes that could disrupt many aspects of society. In this context, the next 10 to 15 years could be a transformative period for the relationship between Canada’s government and broader society. This Insight is part of a series developed by Policy Horizons Canada on a variety of topics.

Consumers are gaining more power in driving sustainable behaviours. They are using social media, applications, and globalization to get organizations and governments to take action.

What’s Changing?

Use of the Internet is creating a new generation of discerning consumers who are using their power to push businesses towards deliberate sustainable options. Businesses are not only competing with other businesses, but also with the changing perceptions of consumers fuelled by social media and other online feedback mechanisms. This consumer power could become a driving force behind major product and service decisions, affecting design, production, marketing, sales, purchasing and recycling processes.

Social media has allowed consumer groups to reach more people and solicit greater responses

The Online “Influencers” for Sustainable Change

Online Influencers are individuals or groups on social media sites like YouTube, Twitter, Vine, Instagram and Facebook that have a substantial following. They are often considered experts in a distinct area. A 2015 survey(link is external) by Nielsen stated that an influencer’s recommendation(link is external) is comparable to that of a friend or family member. With two-thirds of consumers trusting other consumers’ opinions, comments posted online are the third most-trusted source of feedback for shoppers. Influencers can directly shape the behaviour of businesses. Small businesses now look to sites like FameBit(link is external) to connect them with small to mid-size social media stars that can promote their products or services. Some YouTube stars, such as Jacksgap(link is external), with over four million subscribers, use their channel to share views on climate change and get millennials talking about global sustainability. In 2015, YouTube stars from around the world joined together to get the world to act on climate change with the #OursToLose video(link is external), which has over 3 million views. The organizers created a playlist of inspiring and informative YouTube videos that provide an overview of the dangerous consequences of climate inaction.

Social media has allowed consumer groups(link is external) to reach more people, spark debates, get consumers to rethink their choices and solicit greater responses from organizations. Groups such as Greenpeace(link is external) and SumOfUs(link is external) have taken to YouTube to slam unsustainable company practices. A Greenpeace campaign lobbied Lego to cut ties with Shell over the company’s plans to drill under the Arctic. The Lego: Everything is NOT awesome(link is external) film received over 7 million views on YouTube and influenced Lego’s decision not to renew the contract with Shell. SumOfUs launched their campaign criticizing Doritos and parent company PepsiCo for the ‘destruction of the rainforest’ and an ‘unsustainable use of palm oil’. The video(link is external) received over two million views on YouTube and led PepsiCo to reaffirm its commitment to 100% sustainable palm oil and zero-deforestation. Other groups such as 350.org(link is external) and Break Free(link is external) use their online platforms to organize large-scale actions worldwide. In 2016, Break Free hosted a two week “Break Free from Fossil Fuel” campaign on six continents with 30,000 plus participants protesting while posting their experience online.

Taking Control Through Education and APPS

The network effect of the Internet is resulting in largely bottom-up ways of educating consumers about sustainability. Individuals and groups are proposing complete consumption changes not merely by talk alone, but also action. Buy Me Once(link is external) and Mental_Floss(link is external) are consumer-run web sites that allow sustainability-conscious customers to find products, from cutlery and clothing to luggage and children’s toys, that have a lifetime guarantee. These sites promote repairs over replacement and offer tips to those wanting to make lasting behavioural changes.

Consumers are also choosing wisely with the help of eco-labelling services. Eco-labelling is a voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labelling practiced around the world. It identifies products or services produced in an environmentally friendly way. Apps such as HowGood(link is external) and GoodGuide(link is external)offer a platform for consumers to identify and rate sustainable products and companies based on health, environmental and social impacts. Other apps offer unique approaches to develop and maintain sustainable behaviour, while tracking users’ impact on the environment(link is external). Some apps apply gamification(link is external)techniques, create a sense of community for users to  encourage behavioural change and offer avenues to save and earn money when users reach, sustainability milestones.

Potential Implications

While a consumer approach to sustainable development may be disorganized and may not allow to completely change the system, the connecting power of the Internet has provided new avenues of coordination. These new means could influence a faster move to more sustainable processes. Possible implications of consumers taking sustainable matters into their own hands are included below.

Business models may evolve to include sustainable practices.

Business models could be adapted to incorporate “products as services.” In this model, a system of products, services, supporting networks and infrastructure are designed to be competitive, satisfy customers’ needs, and have a lower environmental impact. This transformation would not only improve businesses’ public image but also reduce operating costs, resource shortages, and prices. Businesses could incorporate sustainability analytics in order to collect and analyze data on a wide range of sustainability-related factors—including energy and resource use, greenhouse gas emissions, consumer usage, and supply chain performance. This information could be used to generate insights businesses need to guide their sustainability-related initiatives and improve their overall resource efficiency.

Educational systems may change to instill sustainable behaviour.

There may be a greater push for educational systems to incorporate sustainable practices into curriculums(link is external). As the need grows, classrooms and campuses may transform into “living laboratories” and serve as examples of efficient systems that would not deplete or exploit resources or people. This could result in a growing culture of inquiry that combines current best practices of teaching and learning with the content, core competencies, technologies, and habits required for students to actively participate in creating a sustainable future.1

Governments may adopt new policy tools to promote sustainable citizen behaviour.

Traditionally, governments have used the policy levers of legislation, regulation and taxation to change citizen behaviour and deliver policy outcomes. As citizens become more environmentally conscious, it is likely that these levers alone can address problems that require mass citizen mobilisation and long-term sustainable behaviour change. Governments may apply lessons learned from behavioural sciences and new policy tools. For example, policymakers could develop policies through the use of an influence model, which includes educational elements, campaigns, social movements, citizen participation, and co-creation.2

Self-monitoring and consumer monitoring may inspire behavioural change.

Through artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and big data, individuals and businesses could monitor their own sustainable behaviours, as well as those of others. Praises, nudges, and the influence of others could help improve sustainable behaviours.


1. Bergstrom, K. 2009. Education for a Green Economy. A keynote address at the Michigan Science Teachers Association Annual Conference. Cloud, J.P. (2010). Educating for a sustainable future. Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, Chapter 10. Washington, DC: ASCD. Ecological Society of America (ESA) Earth Stewardship (program website). Retrieved from http://www.esa.org/earthstewardship.(link is external)
2. WPP. 2016. Integrate Communication Campaigns to support citizen behaviour change: A practical guide. Retrieved from http://www.wpp.com/govtpractice/

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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