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Influencers can help people switch to sustainable living

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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Image: Pexels by Liza Summer; Influencer recording video on smartphone

Research from Unilever suggests that social media influencers can have a positive impact on consumer behaviour, especially when it comes to sustainability.

Unilever partnered with a cohort of eco-conscious influencers and behavioural scientists to examine the role of influencer content in impacting sustainable choices. In partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the world’s first government institution dedicated to applying behaviour science, it put activist influencer social media content to the test.

BIT built a simulated social platform that showed people various styles of content, and measured the resulting behaviour change of 6,000 UK, US, and Canadian consumers.

The results revealed that social media ranks as one of the most influential sources of sustainability information for the consumer, with 75 percent of people more likely to take up behaviours to help save the planet after watching social media content about sustainability.

Influencers it notes have the single biggest impact on people’s green choices today for 78 percent of people surveyed, ahead of TV documentaries (48 percent), news articles (37 percent) and even government campaigns (just 20 percent).

Unilever adds that 83 percent think that TikTok and Instagram are helpful places to get advice about how to live sustainably. This figure was even higher at 86 percent for younger participants in the study, aged 18 to 34 years old.

Unilever and the Behavioural Insights Team reveal that content creators can influence consumers on sustainable living

Dove and Hellmann’s, two of Unilever’s brands, commissioned 30 pieces of content to encourage the "two most impactful behaviours on an individual’s carbon footprint," using less plastic and wasting less food.

The study content tested was created to be either: Pragmatic -"characterised by an emphasis on the scale of the problem behaviour, expansive and far-away consequences, and a heavy use of data and statistics" or Optimistic - "characterised by practical demonstrations of how to live sustainably, emphasis on the benefits to the individual, and a surprising, often humorous tone".

The results found that both styles of content were effective in encouraging people to adopt sustainable behaviours, with 75 percent saying the content made them more likely to save and reuse plastic, buy refillable products, and freeze and reuse leftover food.

When measuring actual behaviour change, the study revealed that people value both facts and practical advice. Of those who watched ‘pragmatic’ content, 69 percent went on to try something new to reduce their plastic or food waste, with 61 percent of those who watch ‘optimistic’ content reporting action.

Branded content was also viewed as just as “engaging, authentic and informative” as unbranded content, with participants supportive of social media creators making sponsored sustainable content. Eight in 10 (77 percent) support creators encouraging their audience to behave in an environmentally friendly way and 72 percent support them selling products or services focused on sustainability. While 76 percent were encouraged to act after watching Dove plastics reuse content.

Conny Braams, chief digital and commercial officer at Unilever, said in a statement: “People are finding it hard to make sustainable choices due to a lack of simple, immediate and trustworthy information. Our ambition is to continue to collaborate with our partners to improve the sustainability content produced by our brands and support the creators we work with.

“Together, we are learning what is all likes and no action versus content that makes sustainable choices simple and preferred.”

Professor David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, added: “This study is a world-first of its kind and the largest online controlled trial to test the effect of different styles of social media content. The behaviour change potential of social media is clear and the results show that there’s huge opportunity, providing fertile ground for further exploration in this space.”

Behavioural Insights Team
Social Media
Sustainable Fashion