Switching to a plant-based diet is the single greatest way that individuals can reduce their climate impact, slashing average carbon footprint by 73%. But take it from someone who stopped eating meat as a kid: it can be socially uncomfortable, depending on your community. Without my family’s support, my decision would have been completely untenable where I grew up in rural Maine. Even today, the paucity of plant-based options turns a simple commitment into an act of bravery.
But the sustainable choice shouldn’t be unusual, or impossible, or brave. It should be easy.
One of the reasons we started Hatcher is actually to remove these kinds of barriers from sustainable choices, both for companies and their consumers. Through many of our conversations with clients across industries, we see a recurring issue: the role of human behavior is constantly overlooked when it comes to making sustainable change. This is especially true when it comes to getting people to adopt plant-based lifestyles, which require a huge shift in very entrenched routines.
What we forget is that the people who make up our customers, companies and communities are all just that: people. And while we’re all unique, we behave in predictable ways.
If we want consumers to make better choices, we have to do the hard work ourselves to put the right choices in front of them. So here are 3 strategies derived directly from behavioral science to accelerate the adoption of sustainable lifestyles, whether in the kitchen, the grocery store, or at home.
1. MAKE IT PERSONAL
So the first one is about making it personal. And the behavioral science theory behind this strategy is called intrinsic motivation. Often companies assume that what matters to them, matters to their consumers too. But if you don’t understand the intrinsic motivation driving your consumers, you’ll get the incentive wrong.
When it comes to getting people to eat less meat, companies typically message around sustainability and animal welfare. And while these are very important benefits, they unfortunately aren’t very effective at changing very entrenched habits. Instead, we have to appeal to the personal health benefits around reducing meat intake.
It turns out that 80% of people working to reduce their meat intake are doing so for their own personal health - not for the planet. It makes sense: because the climate crisis is so massive, it is easy to feel as though our individual actions won’t make a difference. But when it comes to our personal health, individuals do feel they have agency to improve the quality of their lives. The latest research affirms that beyond slashing carbon emissions, “plant-based animal product alternatives also have a wide range of health benefits.”
Sustainable eating is healthy eating, and that’s a powerful lever we should use to appeal to busy people who have other priorities besides saving the planet.
If we thoughtfully reinforce this sense of agency through sustainable action, we can start to make plant-based behaviors the norm.
2. MAKE IT NORMAL
Humans are social animals, so in addition to our personal identity, people are heavily influenced by their peers. Knowing this, how might we leverage social identity to shift towards plant-based diets?
Studies have found that people are much more likely to adopt green behaviors if they believe those behaviors are already widespread - whether recycling, towel reuse, energy consumption - and even avoiding meat. Eating is a social activity, so it might not come as a surprise that social norms can be a stronger predictor of plant-based diets than personal preferences. That’s how badly we want to fit in with our social groups.
One study set in the UK found that people ate vegan far more often when they perceived their family and friends to frequently eat vegan meals. In fact, our family and friends are often the ones who first introduce us to new kinds of food, and by showing that it’s tasty, healthy and socially acceptable, they lower the barriers to plant-based food adoption, even for people who normally wouldn’t try something new.
So if we message how normal it is to avoid meat, and how many people are already eating vegan, we can help create and reinforce sustainable habits. This is most effective when we show how easy it is to do, and when we reinforce the personal benefits and positive results of the change. In other words, we have to communicate the benefits if we want to make plant-based diets irresistible, even to people who have no interest in the environment.
3. MAKE IT IRRESISTIBLE
If we want our consumers to make the right choices, then we have to make those choices magnetic. In behavioral economics, choice architecture is a way to make the right decision irresistible: for example, putting fruit at eye level or near the cash register in cafeterias is a classic example of a “nudge” proven to get people to choose healthier options. How can we incorporate these ideas to remove friction from plant-based diets and routines?
First of all, we have to make sure vegan options meet consumers’ high expectations for taste, price, and convenience, or we will never achieve widespread adoption of plant-based lifestyles. Once we’ve surpassed this standard, then we must creatively elevate plant-based options from being outliers, to being the default choice.
Defaults have been shown to determine outcomes in many contexts, because people tend to avoid making a decision that requires their mental or physical effort. When renewable energy is set as the default in residential buildings, 94% of residents kept the arrangement. Default options also imply a recommendation on the part of the provider, which many individuals tacitly trust.
A recent study used two menus to test how these well-known strategies affect meat consumption in restaurant settings. One menu offered meat and fish options, with a note that a vegetarian option could be requested. The second menu contained vegetarian and fish dishes, while the note offered a meat option upon request. At the end of the experiment, 5 times as many people ordered vegetarian meals from the plant-forward menu as from the meat-forward menu.
Menus are not the only way to make plant-based eating irresistible. In groceries, strategically locating plant-based meat next to conventional meat, or where it will be convenient for customers, helps reduce the psychological investment required to switch to vegan products. Product labeling also affects purchasing: when plant-based proteins are described as “veggie meat” or “meat-less,” fewer American consumers buy these products. On the other hand, incorporating the terms “plant-based” or “All-American” improves sales of alternative proteins.
Because perceived complexity creates a barrier to sales of plant-based meat, we have to convey how quick and easy it is to prepare these products in place of conventional proteins. Once consumers return home, simply providing new recipes or meal ideas can help facilitate long-term adoption of plant-based foods, especially when these fit into social settings. So instead of just selling new products and trusting the consumer will know what to do with them, we have to create rich, recurring and personalized experiences that show our consumers how to create plant-based meals that exceed their high standards.
Behavioral science tells us that sharing an experience makes people happier, leads to stronger personal connections, and cultivates more-positive memories than exchanging a material product. As innovators, we have to redesign our business models to make sustainable choices convenient. So if we help consumers express their authentic identity through healthy meals, while making a new social norm to eat diverse, plant-based diets, then we can create magnetic offerings based on shared experiences for families and friends. If we show how plant-based eating supports a healthy lifestyle, we can help our consumers enjoy more of their favorite experiences, while preserving the planet we all call home. That’s irresistible.