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In the second part of his blog about behaviour change for a circular economy, Marc Atherton asks if the change can be consumer led.


Read part 1 of this blog here.

The circular economy has clear advantages for society and links well with low carbon economic models, the sharing economy and sustainability as general concepts. In raising another perspective it is legitimate to ask whether it can be consumer led. Are people aware of the concept and its implications? Do consumers care about the circular economy? If consumers do not care, what would make them care?

This leads us to a number of questions:

  • Who are the key consumer actors?
  • What is their current position on the circular economy?
  • What do they need to know and do differently to today?
  • Where are they found?
  • How do we communicate with them?
  • How will they know if the right type of change is happening?

Three key components offer the possibility of outlining a solution space for investigating these questions:

  • Generational Cohorts – much is said of the generational cohorts in our society: Baby Boomers, Generations X, Y and Z, and Millennials. Each of these groups has two key characteristics from the perspective of the circular economy:
    • Demographics which include the numbers of each cohort in the population and their socio-economic status.
    • Psychographics which include the core Values, Attitudes, Beliefs and Behaviours (VABB) of each cohort.
      • It should be noted that the VABB and demographics are not entirely correlated. Significant elements of each cohort can exhibit VABB which are not 'theirs'
  • Media channels – we live in a multi-channel world which intersects with the generational cohorts in complex ways which need to be recognized if we are attempting to raise awareness, prompt action and provide feedback. Which channels might best serve in creating a circular economy mindset for which cohorts given:
    • One of the fastest-growing groups in the UK on Twitter is the 55+ age group
    • 50% of all the digitally connected 3bn people in the world use Facebook regularly
    • The balance between traditional and social media news sources is evolving quickly
  • MINDSPACE – developed by the UK Government, the MINDSPACE framework provides a structured way of delivering communication strategies which incorporate key findings from Behavioural Science to maximise engagement and effectiveness in a complex stakeholder landscape:
    • Which profile of MINDSPACE components would be most effective for which cohort?
    • What message content would be most appropriate?

What I am suggesting is that, in line with World Bank report, three things would be needed to support a change in consumer behaviour that would in turn support the creation of a more circular economy:

  • Acknowledging the biases, heuristics and limitations identified by Behavioural Economics in human thinking when framing the rationale for the circular economy.
  • Creating and embedding Social Norms within communities to foster and support actions which are aligned with the circular economy goals.
  • Creating cultural Mental Models which make the circular economy the default worldview of society.

In following these ideas it would be essential to ensure that they are aligned with the VABB of the relevant sectors of society. Delivering the right message in the wrong way can be as nugatory as delivering the wrong message in the right way. Behaviour Change occurs when it is consistent with existing VAB with a positive outcome and feedback.

Creating a tipping point

One view that can inform a way of thinking about change is the Schelling change model. Change can be seen as a consequence of information following network effects within populations, and spreading organically. There is an oft referenced concept that once 30% of a population have a shift in what I refer to as VABB then a 'tipping point' will be reached and the remainder of the population will adopt the new VABB. The key source for this can be found in the work of Thomas Schelling1 and the cellular automata model of populations. The general concept of how apparently minor shifts in individual VABB can result in a major shift at the 'tipping point' is relevant to creating a consumer led change towards the circular economy.

The implication is that we need to find large existing communities, accessible via broad-based media channels, with pre-existing VABB which would be aligned with and would be able to absorb a circular economy message that would have what Malcolm Gladwell calls 'stickiness'.

Gladwell summarises an essential idea:

'The theory of the Tipping Point requires ... that we reframe the way we think about the world .... those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right....they deliberately test their intuitions.'

If part of the thinking around the circular economy is the question of whether it can be consumer led, then consumers need to change to purchasing goods and services that are produced by circular producers and let non-CE organisations know they would prefer CE products. From the perspective of the Behavioural Sciences this is a call to experimentation, laboratory or field, to gather relevant data to allow the issue to be addressed.

Moving away from a high-level strategic overview poses the challenge of how relevant data could be gathered in a practical way to understand the potential for a consumer-led circular economy movement.

Do women hold the key?

In the UK, women influence 80 percent of all consumer buying decisions and by 2025 are expected to own 60 percent of all personal wealth. Given this situation the circular economy is to a large extent an economy in which, from the purchasing power perspective, women have a large impact.

Given that Schelling's models tell us that a tipping point can occur where ~>30% of a population adopt a particular view, it might be worthwhile to tap into existing social networks that have both a gender and VABB intersection that are aligned with the goals of the circular economy.

Without looking to any suggestion of gender bias, but simply for ease of access to a large community that might be a valid area for data gathering, and looking to where 'consumer power' may lie in our society, a number of organisations spring to mind that may facilitate a research pool of consumers.

Looking at networks like Mumsnet there already exist large online communities which might be more receptive to the message and more capable of taking action. Organisations such as the Women's Institute, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust could be worked with to relatively easily reach economically important and socially active communities that could provide a consumer led push. Existing networks which facilitate access to large communities of a broad range of generational cohorts should also be part of the way forward.

Change starts at the RSA!

In line with the central tenets of Behavioural Science, Behavioural Economics and Behavioural Finance, and taking a view of the UK, EU and World Bank recognition that the key to creating a positive future is through behaviour change on a social scale, undertaking both laboratory and field experiments to address issues of circular economy awareness and salience would seem to be warranted. Gathering some real world evidence to better understand the possibilities of bringing consumers into the circular economy space as active participants who can help to shape its future could well add a valuable perspective to the circular economy project.

Given the role played by organisations looking at the corporate and legislative aspects of the circular economy, I would argue that the RSA, with its existing design-led perspective, is the body best placed to address the consumer-related aspects of the circular economy and undertake the research necessary to provide the evidence to address the issue of the role that consumers can play in creating it.

1 Schelling, Thomas. Micromotives and Macrobehavior, 2006


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