Leveraging Hunter-Gatherer Instincts for Successful Green Marketing

By Bonnie J. Wallace

Few aspects of human nature are as challenging to green marketers as the human bias to value the present over the future. This trait developed over millennia to serve survival needs, and remains deeply entrenched despite its tendency to lead us into behavior that over the long term may be destructive of ourselves and our species. For example, researchers show that asking people to consider the needs of coming generations as well as their own is largely ineffective. And our brains are just not wired to respond to slow-moving, novel dangers: for example, climate change doesn’t get us moving the same way that large animals do. (See The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship).

So where are the leverage points for getting those instincts to work for, rather than against us? One is “life history theory,” which suggests that people who live in a dangerous, unstable environment tend to be more impulsive and discount the future more than those in more stable and predictable environments. The implication: Don’t paint pictures of a scary, unpredictable future if you want people to act responsibly. In the face of uncertainty, people will reach for the short-term payoff (for example hoarding, and increasing resource use) over their long-term interests. This implies that strategies emphasizing a recognizable future are more likely to encourage behavior that takes the needs of the future into account.

Disregarding intangible concerns is another leftover from our hunter-gatherer past. Our brains evolved when behaviors and consequences were clearly linked (hunt all the game in the area and go hungry, eat something bad and become sick or die). But today our actions are almost entirely divorced from the environment, and our senses are not involved with the consequences of those actions. For example, when we purchase something made from wood harvested with unsustainable logging practices, we don’t feel the effects of deforestation. We feel the attractive price point.

However, if tangible evidence that affects the senses can be harnessed to let people know when their actions are leading to detrimental outcomes, they may change their behavior. The authors of the paper linked to above cite the standard use of an added noxious odor to natural gas to cue people to the fact that they are being poisoned, and suggest that adding a colorant to harmful air emissions to show their levels might lead to changed behavior. This makes perfect sense in the abstract, but I’m not sure that adding colorant to air pollution is likely to happen. I’m curious about what other, smaller cues might be created to bring people closer to their part in the cause and effect cycle. How might we involve the senses to make environmental problems feel real?

Finally, the innate human appreciation for natural beauty may be the greatest asset available to shape positive actions for the environment. The authors suggest exposing urban children to animals, nature, and the outdoors as a way to foster a long-term commitment to the health of the planet. This may be the best green marketing of all.

Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.


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