Careful sustainability communication can encourage individuals with low environmental concern to behave in more environmentally friendly ways, says recently published research. This will allow marketers not only to target segments thought to be more environmentally friendly, but to find persuasive methods to subtly and slowly change behaviour across all sectors of society.
However, there are many opportunities to also miscommunicate, as found in the recent study in Taiwan. The experiment was conducted by wording a message about entering a park by car or public shuttle, where the first is more convenient but incurs a fee, and the second is less convenient but is free.
The authors first found that, as expected, tourists with a higher environmental concern claimed to be more likely to behave in an environmentally friendly way. The second step was more interesting, as they found that describing the consequences of engaging or not engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour, framed as having a positive or negative effect for themselves, had a statistically significant effect on changing their behaviour.
The best thing they found was that the individuals with lower environmental concern were more likely to change their stated behaviour, and be more prone to be influenced by framing the benefits of an action as positive or negative. Those that already thought of themselves as environmentally friendly did not change their response because of explaining the consequences of that behaviour, or whether the consequences would be explained as having a benefit to themselves, arguably because they had already made up their mind.
There is danger ahead, however. Messages that threaten the identity that we have of ourselves, as individuals, consumers or in relation to our environmental values, have an impact on the behaviour we say we are likely to engage in. Their research found that messages that caused unconscious blame, caution or severe criticism for what could be seen as careless environmental behaviour can eliminate their efficiency. When a message has any sign of guilt, the individuals with low environmental values revert to saying they will not behave in an environmentally friendly way.
This has clear implications for how tourist destinations and businesses need to explain what an environmentally friendly behaviour is, and how to ask individuals to change their behaviour. Subtle messages that make consumers feel good about themselves and reinforce their sense of self worth and identity are likely to work for the majority of consumers, who have relatively low environmental values, while being also effective for those individuals with higher environmental values. The sense of negativity, in either losing enjoyment or increasing difficulty in the action, or a threat to the sense of self-worth, stops most consumers from engaging.
Read the research note at: Huang, M.-C. J., et al. Framing makes tourists more environmentally conservative. Annals of Tourism Research (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.