Episode 15

The “Sustainability” disconnect

We explore the disconnect between how people vs. companies look at our environment

The “Sustainability” disconnect

Since we started our Customer, Now series at the beginning of the pandemic, we have heard a rumbling undertone of “sustainability” from the hundreds of people we engage with daily around the world. Of course, real people don’t usually talk about “sustainability”. They talk about doing more with less. Simplifying. Going outside. Gardening. Birdwatching. Enjoying sunsets.

“Sustainability” is often used as a corporate catch-all for “the planet”, “the environment”, “the climate”, “corporate social responsibility” – abstract ideas that feel too big for most people to connect with. So they don’t.

The hypothesis is, that by keeping “sustainability” at a distance through the abstract discussion of it, we keep the urgency of “the climate crisis” at a distance from people’s everyday lives. We make it tomorrow’s problem instead of today’s actions.

In this Episode, we want to unpack “sustainability” to listen for possibilities in the way people talk about it.

First, we did a simple exercise asking people to define “sustainability” – not in corporate terms, but in ways that were meaningful, personally to them. We were surprised by the articulate and pointed definitions we heard…that, when aggregated into one, people defined sustainability as “meeting present needs without compromising the future.” Pretty spot on.

When people talked about “sustainability”, they talked about far more than “the planet” or “the environment”. And of course, they talk about government and business. But more than anything, they talk about their own actions.

Nearly everyone talks about “doing my part” – recycling, not littering, bringing their own bags to the grocery story, etc. But they also feel that their part is “not enough”, so they see their role as “small”…so they default into only taking small actions. [something very meta happening here]

However, and this is really interesting, people want to do more. They want to play a bigger part. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, but they don’t know or have control over how.

We are seeing a disconnect between how brands treat “sustainability” and what people want from it. People want more. THEY want to do more. Of course, they want companies and governments to do more, but people want a bigger role in “sustainability” efforts themselves.

While we don’t have the answer to “climate change,” we think it starts by talking about it more intimately, more personally, more meaningfully* to the people who want to do more. To show people their impact. To not default people into playing a small part, but default them into having more control over more of their actions. Empowering them to play a much bigger part…at 7 billion strong.

*This does not mean talking about “carbon offsets”. Mother Nature, herself, doesn’t know what a “carbon offset” is.

I do what I can. Although I feel my efforts do not achieve anything.”

One person alone can only do so much.”


One of the biggest drivers of behavior change, is the reward one gets for the change one makes. The problem with making changes that support “sustainability,” “the climate” and “the environment”, is that the reward (like the discussion of these issues) is too abstract. Too disconnected from one’s immediate actions…so then little action is taken, with little reinforcement, resulting in little impact made.

However, across every category and countless brands, simple concrete nudges have proven to be effective in changing behavior. The construct of “Stimulus-Response-Reward” is used across everything from weight loss to rideshares to video games to loyalty programs – helping to change behavior by rewarding the desired behavior to get the resulting change to stick.

The “reward” can come in lots of different forms – often, most significantly, as emotional or intrinsic rewards. Points, currency, credits only take us so far…and can be good rational, logical vehicles, but how people FEEL when they do something is going to determine more of their behavior change than the “points” they may get for doing it. If one feels good about it, they will do it more. If they feel bad — or in this case, feel nothing — they will not be as inclined to do it again…even though they may state they WANT to…they’re just not gonna do it without the rational or emotional reward to match their desire.

As people are wanting to play a bigger role in “sustainability”, brands can be an evangelizing force to nudge customers’ actions toward more sustainable behaviors. People are asking for it. The world needs it. Brands know how to do it. It is a matter of connecting these dots in responsible, tangible ways, we know work. It is ours to change.

Customer Now 2020

Nothing is changing faster than ourselves.What’s happening with customers right now and what should business do next?

Suddenly, these two questions became a lot more complicated; the answers require us to get beyond the numbers, headlines and hyperbole in search of simple, scalable human truths.

That’s why we’ve launched Customer, Now., a project to document, explore and understand lock-down, and what follows it, from the customers’ perspective.

Through our global communities, we are tapping into the human truths behind customers’ experiences in real-time; exploring their inner worlds more deeply, and creating fresh, generative insights and implications to share with our community.

There’s one guiding insight that’s immediately become clear: in this fast-changing situation, nothing is changing faster than ourselves. This is what we’re exploring through Customer, Now.

It’s not uniform change, nor is it constant. It’s an evolution of our inner lives, our relationships, family, friends, home, health, work and, inevitably, our customer behaviour. And it’s more rapid than we’ve ever seen before.

Through Customer, Now. we’ll deliver to our community an insight, and its implications, every week. With this work, we have one simple aim: to drive a brighter, more progressive, customer-inspired version of tomorrow.

Explore the episodes:

01: Community as essential as food
02: The opposite is also true
03: Survival of the Simplest
04: We before me
05: Humanity in the balance
06: Guilt in Everything
07: The widening empathy gap
08: Habits of control
09: Energy beyond the moment
10: Projecting injustice
11: Believing our excuses
12: Being authentically inclusive
13: Embracing our Truths
14: Living in the grey
15: The “Sustainability” disconnect
16: Reinforcing Myself
17: 2020 “In” Review