Merry Xmas and Happy New Year: Next steps and sustainable consumer behavior insights

This article is a first contribution of a trans-disciplinary applied research work in sustainable consumer behavior.

Did you enjoy the holidays? Were they as deeply satisfying as you hoped for? 

Holiday celebrations are over, another 2’366’000 Christmas trees have been sold in Austria alone, most of them are waiting to be recycled after a few short days of being admired. At the same time, most of these 2’366’000 buyers like to go for a walk in the forest – trees are essential for this natural experience!

At a superficial level, most people are aware of the big environmental issues, this awareness being perhaps limited to climate change, biodiversity loss (especially elephants, rhinos, pandas, polar bears, whales, bees, over-fishing), air pollution, deforestation, and plastic in the oceans. At the same superficial level, people care about major social issues, such as poverty, hunger, inequality, discrimination, violence, stress, insecurity. Furthermore, when asked, most people in most countries express “concern” for these issues.

MAK Wien, January 2018

So, let’s follow up with our consumer behavior experience: during the same holiday period, how does our tradition to offer presents square with our concern for the environment or other humans? Once it comes to deciding what present to offer a family member or close friend, consumers are willing to compromise, or even completely ignore the impact of their purchases. They end up with yet another half-toxic plastic toy for their child, a blouse made (by someone else’s child labor) in India, or the latest Nintendo gadget destined to soon become e-waste… isn’t this strange, as many expressed concern about the specific problem they are making worse by their own actions. Do we care at all? An excellent article about Xmas shopping, “The Gift of Death”, by George Monbiot, was published in the Guardian in 2012 – if anything, it’s even more relevant in 2018.

Beyond Christmas, in spite of all knowledge and expressed “concern”, most people behave in a massively self-destructive way most of the time, directly and personally contributing to the problem. Let’s look at this self-destructive, yet perfectly “normal” daily behavior: eating processed food based on industrial agriculture, traveling a lot, organizing one’s life around a car, following fashion in clothes or electronics, and simply participating in the consumer society all damage the environment (for example climate, biodiversity loss, deforestation, air-water-soil pollution), undermine healthy society (promoting discrimination, inequality, “lifestyle” diseases, poisoning from toxic waste, fueling conflicts and wars, displacing populations), and also destroy personal well-being (unhealthy lifestyle, poor nutrition, short-term focus, lack of meaningful social connections, stress and uncertainty).

Thus, it is a matter of fact that human behavior has to be seen as something complex that cannot be split into parts to be analyzed separately (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2010). No internal and external factors justify a deconstructive individual behavior. As of today, researchers from different fields like psychology, sociology and environmental sciences have not yet found answers to this gap between being conscious about the need to change in regard to sustainability, and the willingness of change in regard to consumer realities.

Reasonably assuming that most people in most countries cannot be completely crazy, we must also assume there are other, even more powerful, forces at work. This will be the initial focus of our research.

Of course, a significant and growing minority is indeed starting to change, in areas as varied as nutrition (vegans, vegetarians, locavores and many other flavors), consumerism and shopping, zero waste, transportation and many more.

What are your resolutions for 2018? After one week, do you still expect to achieve them?

New Year Resolutions are a tempting way of “turning the leaf”, repeatedly and unsuccessfully practiced by a sizable majority. Much research in psychology explains why, and offers suggestions on how to improve the success rate, here is a good example published just last week. But, as it happens, 55% of health-related resolutions and many of the remaining ones are examples of willpower trying to fight the system of normal daily behavior described above, the “normative expectation”, a shared belief about how to behave. Of course, the “system” usually wins. Making sustainability the default, the new normative expectation is clearly our challenge.

MAK Wien, January 2018

The authors were inspired by an applied art exhibition “Aesthetics of change”, in the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, Austria, a presentation of a trans-disciplinary work, coming from universities around the world, with insights in regard to sustainability. Beside a “future room” showing how consumers can access knowledge by simply pronouncing keywords, or standing in front of a camera showing an art photo of themselves, or observing a robot perfectly drawing a Mars landscape (who is surprised by this anymore?), we see this gap between visitors understanding future solutions and their daily consumer behavior. But there is one single message: any member of any social-technical group can become a change agent in regard to sustainability.

This brings us to our applied research question: Why do people continue destroying their own environment instead of changing their way of consuming?

We hope you’ll follow us on this exciting journey, and wish you a great, sustainable 2018 !


Sascha Nick, BSL Professor

Alexandra Broillet, BSL Professor


Lost and Found: The impact of a socio-technical addiction

Consumer behavior insights and lessons learned

A few weeks ago, the authors of this post ended up in a big mess of their own making. After going through the usual phases – denial, anger, scrambling for solutions – we decided to reflect and share what we learned.

It started at a faculty meeting on a Thursday evening, when we involuntarily exchanged our laptops. During the meeting all faculty moved around, participating in workgroups, taking their laptops, often closed. Contrary to student laptops, (wisely) covered with stickers, most BSL faculty use identical-looking clean Apple MacBooks. The meeting ended, everyone took a computer and retuned home.

After dinner, Sascha opened the laptop to check if everything was ready for his new course “SDG Explorer”, starting next morning at 9, just a few hours later. Big shock: it was not his laptop! A few late evening calls to whichever colleagues would kindly answer finally provided Alexandra’s phone number. She answered similarly upset, and after calling a few other kind people, we had a sort of solution to return our computers in the next day or two.

First Insight (all consumer behavior insights in italics) that we gained here was to face the emotional part of “Am I able to function one full day without my computer? Will I be unproductive? Will I only feel unproductive? Above all, how can I accept that somebody else is having MY computer without me having chosen it.”

Next morning, teaching the new course without a computer was indeed a challenge, as BSL’s decades-old “backup” laptop could not connect to any projector and the iPad kind of worked, but was an inferior solution. But somehow my new course went very well, students were interested and engaged – mainly because everyone went out of their way to help, from BSL staff helping with backup technology, providing moral support, finding whatever supplies could help, and suggesting a more suitable classroom, to students helping with class organization, actively participating in discussions and using their laptops to project required content.

Second Insight: the level of social and personal acceptance of the fact that we so strongly depend on technical tools in our professional environment. Could we try to teach one day without any electronic device? Would this be acceptable from the today’s socio-technical point of view? Or should we try to integrate an authentic learning experience in our courses that illustrates this dependence on technology and let us think about its sustainable use?

Friday’s classes ended well, by Saturday afternoon both computers found their owners, and it was time to reflect on lessons learned.

Third Insight: many of our dear technical devices are customized by their owners. If you don’t customize, you risk losing your global product in a global society, even if the content of your computer does underline your individual spirit. Nobody can see this content, it is inside your mass product! So, even if you are not willing to follow the “personal customization” stream, society is demanding it! 

Most importantly, it was only human kindness of absolutely everyone involved that saved the day, including the BSL students, faculty, staff and members of the Impact Hub Geneva, doubling as a logistics hub. It is easy to underestimate the team dimension of everything we do, of every success – this becomes obvious when there’s a problem. This is often evident during big natural disasters, which are becoming more frequent with climate change, but is just as important with small challenges of everyday life.

Fourth Insight: Humans will make the real difference and define the reality of the consuming environment. The product stays a technical tool and gets social through the personal adaption within a consuming context.

Our over-dependence on computers, or rather the high dependence combined with poor usability and limited reliability makes this problematic. Of course, computers are useful and important for work – but we also rely on running water, sanitation, electricity, phones, railways etc., and these systems are much more reliable and easier to use. Their complexity is hidden, managed by experts – the user experience is simple and predictable. On the other hand, just making your computer work is frustrating for most people, and any hardware or software problem, or loss of device creates a major problem for hours or days. Also, fast innovation cycles require constant upgrading and replacing hardware and software, investing non-negligible time, money and effort. What would it take to really be in charge of technology decisions and tools, as opposed to being forced to always catch up. We should ask ourselves what kind of place we should grant to technology in our society.

Finally, there’s the question of conformity. As scholars, we like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, which we hopefully often are, but obviously not in our consumption patterns. Is the Apple MacBook the only suitable computer for professors? Or do we instinctively need to belong? Does this apparent conformism influence academic thinking?

Two weeks later, we still have the same laptops, Sascha’s one is customized with several stickers (yes – it does look ugly), and Alexandra’s with a classic Apple one, saying “Don’t touch!”. We are not sure that we found an answer to the question of academic conformity, but we certainly do know what difference human kindness means in a social-technical consuming context.


Sascha Nick, BSL Professor

Alexandra Broillet, BSL Professor


Demographic segmentation is OUT as consumers are increasingly moving targets

It’s time to rethink your preconceived ideas about using demographics as segmentation tool of your customers.

Imagine the following: The number of Twitter users is growing fast among those aged 55 to 64. More women play video games than men, and there are more gamers aged over 44 than under 18. In August 2014 , the Mandarin Oriental luxury hotel group launched “Selfie in Paris”: A guided tour of the French capital’s best selfie spots in a private chauffeured car.

The above are three seemingly disparate reflections in the mirrored labyrinth that is the 21st century consumerism. But they are all related to each other by a single, profound shift. That is, the diminishing meaningfulness of the traditional demographic clusters thinking – gender, age, class, location, relationship status and more – that have informed the innovation thinking of marketers for decades. Today, those professionals must come to understand a new world in which traditional demographic segments are losing their meaning and applicability. Welcome to the age of post-demographic consumerism.
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Action Calls against Prejudices and Labels against Women as Powerful Competitive Brand Positioning

More and more brands discover the power of taking positions for a cause as strategic brand positioning statement. After Dove’s “Real Beauty Campaign  (watch the video here) and its Self-Esteem Fund, a CSR consequence of it, Vitoria’s Secret’s “Love My Body Campaign”, and HNS (Healthy is the New Skinny) that promotes “women with real curves”, it’s now P&G’s cosmetics brand PANTENE that launched a “Be Strong and Shine” campaign to raise awareness of wrong labels against women, particularly in Philippines:

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