It’s a cloudy afternoon in Birmingham. I’m sitting across from a woman as she rifles through her handbag. Finally, she pulls out a pack of paper straws and holds them up for me, and everyone else, to see. “Why,” she asked, exasperatedly, “if I’m trying to avoid single use plastic straws, would you sell me paper straws wrapped in single use plastic?”

Cognitive dissonance

Increasingly, in our work, we’re hearing comments alluding to this kind of cognitive dissonance. People express the desire to do their bit and feel good about what they are buying. But they can only be as sustainable as the parameters of consumption allow. And the sheer number of things that people must now consider when shopping, either on the high street or online, can be overwhelming: is it organic? Locally sourced? Tested on animals? Environmentally friendly? Made by a fair wage employer? Who has a good policy on diversity?

Very few are able and/or willing to devote the time, energy and money to making the most ethically-sound choice. We want to make the right decision, but it’s impossible to act mindfully on all these issues, leading to choice paralysis. And since we’re hardwired to seek the easiest or most available decision, convenience and cost take over. So, if plastic wrapped cucumber is the only one available at our local Tesco, or if the non-recycled toilet paper is cheaper than the recycled one, then that’s what we get.

Fortunately, this complexity can be simplified. Legislative action, and isn’t acceptable through push behaviour. But for brands, the issue is more nuanced. Many of our clients are grappling with this issue, especially those with business models designed for different times.

Nudging change

Do you offer incentives or penalties to nudge change (think the 50p discount for using a reusable mug, or even more recently, a Cardiff coffee shop’s 50p penalty for those who didn’t bring a reusable cup)? Or do you take things out of people’s hands entirely through innovation (like Waitrose recently did by switching to home compostable carrier bags and ready meal packaging)?

These strategies are effective because despite people’s hardwired inertia, they can be coaxed into action by the desire to fit in or avoid loss.

There is great potential in helping people make good on their desire to be more ethical customers. But while strategy is important, communication is equally so. Time and again in our work, people demonstrate instinctive reactions to ethical claims put forth by businesses. They draw a fine line between what they perceive as a genuine initiative versus jumping on the bandwagon. It’s therefore worth bearing the following three watch-outs in mind:

Less talk, more action

Companies like Ecosia have ethics built into the brand, but many brands have moved with the times and implemented more ethical initiatives. They then need to consider whether, and if so how, to communicate these changes.

IKEA was lauded for quietly adopting more practices that move towards a circular economy. Pepsi, by contrast, was criticised for its ad with Kendall Jenner which shoehorned the brand into an existing social justice movement it had no tangible, pre-existing link to outside. Making a big song and dance about new ethical initiatives can invite suspicion about how sincerely you believe in what you’re doing.

Customer confidence

Each ethical initiative suggests a set of values and beliefs. But people want to feel confident that you are committed to those values, not just adopting them to look good. We are seeing a shifting preference for companies that either incentivise change or make it the default (like the coffee cup or Waitrose examples mentioned earlier) versus making people opt in at a cost (like KLM’s carbon offsetting initiative).

Furthermore, people respect ethical brand initiatives that go counter to profit making, such as Patagonia’s ‘buy less’ campaign. Having sustainability or ethics as an option suggests that this isn’t an issue your business is fully committed to.


When encouraging behaviour change among customers, it’s crucial to consider what we call the effort equation. This homegrown cognitive bias posits that the reward must be greater than the time and energy it takes to obtain it.

Ultimately, in an era where constant demand is placed on people’s attention, they want a return on their cognitive (or physical) investment, and communications need to make clear that they will receive it. The reusable cup discount/penalty is an example of increasing the reward in a tangible way. But this could also come in an intangible form, such as immediate feedback of one’s positive impact (such as Ecosia showing users how many trees have been planted so far thanks to their custom).

In an age where customer choice has never felt so nuanced and previously established business models are being shaken up, brands have the opportunity to square the circle of doing what’s right and doing what’s convenient.