Is education the best way for Unilever to increase ethical purchasing behaviour?

In a recent Financial Times article (registration needed) by Michael Skapinker Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman shared his views on the slow uptake of ethical consumer purchasing behaviour, “We’ve seen limited consumer understanding on buying products that come from illegal deforestation… Consumers don’t value yet if your margarine comes from sustainable palm oil or not. So you have to do an educational programme.”

Do consumers really need educating about the palm oil content of their margarine or shampoo?

This highlights a common challenge for organisations wishing to change people’s behaviour. Their success is often dependent on their ability to change themselves – their products, services, processes and partnerships – as well as their ability to encourage and support change in their customers.

To its credit, Unilever is committed to “inspiring consumers to adopt sustainable products and behaviours.” Realising that consumer use generates two thirds of their products’ greenhouse gas impacts (and about half the water footprint), the company has developed a Sustainable Living Plan to grow its business in a way “that helps improve people’s health and well-being, reduces environmental impact and enhances livelihoods”. It also has developed its own model for behaviour change the Five Levers For Change which reveals a rounded understanding of the concepts and complexity of encouraging people to take positive action. That is why it came as a surprise that Paul Polman was calling for more customer education on sustainable palm oil.

Firstly, increased knowledge or awareness does not necessarily lead to action, just because we know that a product is made from sustainable raw ingredients doesn’t mean we will buy it. In Unilever’s behaviour change model one of the “levers” is to make the action “desirable”. Current factors such as price, availability and brand associations are more dominant than sustainability in our purchasing decisions, and these are things Unilever can influence to increase the desirability of sustainably sourced products.

Secondly, even if consumers are “educated” it is really difficult to tell if products contain sustainable palm oil or not. Often the ingredients label simply says “vegetable oils”. One of Unilever’s five levers for behaviour change is to make the action “easy” – clearer labeling would make it easier for the 30% of consumers that, recent research has found, intend to buy products that have been responsibly produced but find it difficult to convert their intention to action.

Finally, Unilever has taken great strides to ensure that 100% of the sustainable palm oil it currently uses is covered by Green Palm Certificates, three years ahead of schedule. However it has only pledged to purchase all its palm oil from certified sources by 2020. So, in effect, it is asking consumers to change now, when it will have changed in eight years’ time.

Another behaviour change planning model, DEFRA 4Es approach includes “Exemplify” i.e. leading by example. Unilever is undoubtedly trying to do this but I would argue that rather than focusing on educating customers now, it should continue to explore what it can do to change its supply chain, labeling and marketing to boost ethical purchases. Perhaps consumers will be more predisposed to change their behaviour when Unilever has changed theirs?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *