What do people want when they ask for sustainable products or investments? 

If you are a researcher, marketer, communications specialist or product developer you may be wondering how to make sense of what seem to be competing trends in sustainability.

The first step is to realise that what people mean by sustainability is probably different from what you mean.

This is what it means at your workplace

  • If you work in an organisation that specialises in (say) vegan foods, it is likely that you will think about sustainability within the context of agriculture and perhaps the ethics of killing animals. If you work in investment, sustainability for you might  equate to socially-responsible investing so you may avoid investing in gambling for example. If you work in fashion, you may be working on creating substitutes for leather, perhaps. There are many other examples where what sustainability means to you depends on where you work.

  • Brands that offer sustainable products and the competing brands that don't 'take sides', and argue against each other in simple black versus white terms. Some of those brands then take that black versus white discourse to the public. 

This is what it means to everyone else

If you don't work for organisations like these, your exposure to sustainability has been very different.

  • You may have come across the competing arguments from all the different brands but not just from the narrow perspective of one product category. You have probably seen and heard fragments of the discourse about raw foods, recycling versus re-use, alternative energy resources (and how they are manufactured or disposed of), as well as ethical investing.
  • Sometimes, the public gets drawn into arguments about the science or the challenges of predicting the future
  • People can start to feel guilty because they can't be 100% this or that, a guilt which has been artificially created by brands arguing with competitors in the media
  • To add to that, we all have competing and potentially conflicting needs and values. What matters to us as individuals may put us in conflict with our social group for example, and sometimes the social group is more important to us than our own beliefs.

What this means for researchers and insight teams

I believe that researchers should not take sides, even when they are conducting research for a client who is on one side. We don't help that client if we blind them to the value of competing arguments. Brands need to know - and empathise with -  the tensions that prevent potential customers from choosing whether or not to join their cause. Researchers who pretend that this is a black-versus-white winner-takes-all debate to please their client actually harm their client by failing to alert them to key issues.

We should also build into our research designs the idea that people may feel tension between bonding with their social group and their own ideas and vice versa.

So how should we conduct sustainability research?

Aware of how difficult this is, Dominika Noworolska, Emmet Ó Briain and I decided we would tackle the topic of sustainability research when we spoke at the Esomar Fringe Festival in 2020.  We felt that each of our specialities could contribute a unique perspective -  Dominika on the semiotics of sustainability, Emmet on sustainability discourses. and me on qualitative sensemaking research. 

Here are the videos of our presentations

Dominika explains the concept of semiotic codes and narratives and explains how the meaning of sustainability changes across cultures, and over time.  After listening to her description of the semiotic square you will never again define sustainability as a simple opposition to wastefulness. 

Emmet explores what discourse analysis is and analyses how brands talk about sustainability. Emmet's analysis shows how the tabloid press in Ireland - and this is true too of Australia - position climate change as "exotic and absurd". He also critiques the typical way that brands respond to issues like this, saying "brands fail to make sense of the everyday world because they tend to relate to it as external to them."  

In my presentation, I share a sensemaking qualitative research case study I conducted with vegetarians and vegans. I make the point that we won't understand where sustainability is going in a commercial or moral sense, unless we actively look for the tensions that people feel when they try to act according to their social beliefs.

Dominika Noworolska

https://youtu.be/9RvbHXcmMSk

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Emmet Ó Briain

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Cy8UqQGdoU

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Sue Bell

https://youtu.be/pbnSUA_6MhU

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Website www.sbresearch.com.au 

User testing of content: how to write so users read your words

You want users to read your words don't you?

The thing is - reading is harder than many writers realise.

I recently came across an article about long sentences in government advice about COVID 19.  The article was in The Conversation. The authors argued that 'Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand.'  The authors correctly identified complex sentences like this: 

"Phase 3 will be subject to health advice, but will focus on continuing to build stronger links within the community and include further resumption of commercial and recreational activities."

As the authors pointed out this is a complex sentence because of the number of words in this sentence (29 in total) and the formality of the language.  In this example many of the words are also long - six have more than three syllables. The language used is also quite formal. As the authors of the article say, the last part of the sentence is better expressed as 'opening businesses and allowing some personal activities'. 

For me, this is about 'reading' rather than 'understanding'

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Our contribution to Treasury’s Retirement Income Review

The Treasury Retirement Income Review report is out. Great to see our work cited!

 

Industry Super Australia commissioned us to conduct a survey to find out how much superannuation retirees and pre-retirees have, as well as how much they owe in debt. One of the significant findings of our survey was that people who retired involuntarily had less money and more debt in retirement. on average.

 

About half of retirees retire earlier than they expected to because their work opportunities ran out or because of their or someone else’s health problems

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