Joel Makower’s recent blog entitled “Is ‘Carbon Neutral’ Good Enough?” speaks to the growing trend to offset carbon emissions generated from personal or business activities. Consumer sentiment is changing in the US, with a growing consensus on the need for action to mitigate global warming. As Makower points out, companies such as DHL and UK-airline Silverjet have recently launched new services that include carbon offsets into the price, while TerraPass, Kärcher USA and Sam’ Club announced the first carbon-balanced retail product. In fact, as Makower notes, carbon neutral “is rapidly becoming a minimum expectation of companies, concerts, conferences [and] celebrations.”
Marketers should take note of this emerging trend and its underlying motivations: when it comes to global warming, social norms are evolving. Quite simply, it is becoming less and less acceptable for companies not to take responsibility for their own (or their customers’) carbon emissions.
The notion of carbon responsibility first became popular on the global stage in relation to leisure and non-essential business activities. Examples include global sports events or conferences. Recently, it has spread to corporations that anticipate the inevitability of government caps on carbon (if not governed by them already), as well as to consumers who are increasingly conscious of their own responsibilities and frustrated by the inaction of their own governments.
Academic literature addresses this impact. In his Focus Theory of Normative Conduct, Cialdini et al (1990) suggest that social norms influence acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. He identifies two types of social norms:
- Descriptive norms: “what [other] people typically do”
- Injunctive norms: “what [other] people typically approve or disapprove [of]”
“Only by aligning descriptive norms…with injunctive norms,” Cialdini et al proposed, “can one optimize the power of normative appeals.”
Cialdini presents empirical evidence for his theory and how it impacts environmentally responsible behavior. In one experiment, he tested the propensity for people to litter given different social norms and cues. Results demonstrated the power of the descriptive and injunctive norms for littering: people displayed a higher propensity to litter when the environment dictated litter as the norm (e.g. there was more litter on the ground or others were observed littering) and a lower propensity to litter when it was clear cleanliness was the “approved” norm (e.g. after observing someone else litter within a clean environment).
One could argue that similar dynamics are in play when it comes to action (or inaction) on global warming. In this case, at least until very recently within the US, the prevailing descriptive norm was to do nothing, because that is what everyone else was doing.
Two things are occurring that seem to be changing this. First, descriptive norms within the global community apprear to be evolving. These norms have shifted more dramatically in Europe and Japan and provide tangible examples for the US to follow. Some initial signs of change have appeared: 1) US multinational companies have joined the Chicago Climate Exchange and committed to voluntary carbon reductions, 2) state and local governments have enacted sweeping legislation to cap carbon emissions and 3) individual consumers are purchasing an increasing number of higher gas mileage vehicles.
Second, injunctive norms are also changing as global social norms shift toward responsibility for carbon emissions. Much like the smoking ban enacted in 2003 in New York City, which is credited for inspiring similar bans globally, global social norms are shifting in regard to global warming. As Al Gore stated in his movie, we have a “moral responsibility” to take action – and it seems that we are slowing beginning to do that.
So, marketers should take note. Campaigns should take advantage of – as well as reinforce – evolving social norms and do so in a way that incorporates both descriptive and injunctive norms into their messaging.
Cialdini, Robert, R Reno, and C Kallgren, 1990. “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: a theoretical refinement and re-evaluation of the role of norms in human behavior.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201-234
Cialdini, Robert, 2003. “Crafting normative messages to protect the environment”, in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12-4, 105