Bring It Closer

Short Term


I attended a lunchtime workshop on sustainability recently. In the context of a business of over 10,000 employees the question was not only how we can make our manufacturing process and retail operations more sustainable, but also looking at how the business could encourage more environmentally sustainable behaviour amongst its people.

It was the first time I had seen one of the many videos available online that are highlighting with growing urgency, the issue of plastic in our oceans. A statement in the video resonated with me; “plastic doesn’t ever go away”. Plastic never fully degrades, which means that all the plastic that has ever been made still exists as plastic in some form or other. Most of it is in landfill somewhere, a small proportion has been recycled into other plastic products and, of course, a huge quantity of it is now swirling its way round the earth’s oceans. It’s a huge problem.

The video showed the devastating effects of the plastic washed up on what were once idyllic beaches and the vast plastic ‘carpets’ covering hundreds of square miles of our oceans’ surfaces.

In the context of emotional vs rational communication, it was definitely the former. No amount of stats or slick pie charts could have evoked the visceral reaction I felt at watching images of young children picking their way through masses of bottles and bags on their beaches, and footage of ocean life trapped and caught up in our old plastic waste.

But that statement, “plastic doesn’t ever go away”. I was left thinking about that for a long time. Because in fact, for most of us it does go away. If I throw a plastic bottle in a waste bin, it goes away. Someone takes it away and I don’t see it anymore. Out of sight out of mind. It’s too easy to be disconnected from the impact of our actions.

The emotional impact of a campaign or message is reduced if there is a significant distance between the action a person takes, and the potential outcome of their behaviour.

I talk a lot about proximity in the context of time, but of course, as in the paragraphs above, it can also be geographical. The geographical proximity effect was also demonstrated by the now famous study in San Marcos, California, by Schultz et al in 2007, where households who were told their energy consumption was above the average of their neighbours, significantly reduced their energy use in the following weeks, compared to those who received a more generic message about wider average consumption.

‘Distance’ includes:

• the perceived amount of control and power to act that a person feels they have over a situation. Their perception of how little their behaviour will have an impact on the outcome. Thinking “it won’t make any difference whatever I do!”

• any significant time delay between the action and the outcome (e.g. 5 years later)

• the physical, geographical distance between themselves and the outcome.

Can you make the impact of customers’ behaviour seem closer? Can you demonstrate the direct connection between their action and the result so they feel more empowered? Can you shorten the proximity both in terms of time and geographical distance?