When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) came to Ziba in 2020 to develop a campaign about reducing food waste in resorts, hotels, and cruise ships, they knew that public awareness campaigns have a mixed track record in terms of effectiveness. So they came to us looking for a new approach.
Just informing is not enough.
Awareness campaigns often make the mistake of assuming that people are uninformed, and that if they only knew the scope of the problem, they’d automatically change how they act. For a problem like food waste, this is a reasonable assumption: while most people know it’s better for food to get eaten than thrown out, its environmental impact is less well-known. Wasting food also wastes energy, water, land, and resources, and that has a long term effect on the planet.
But hardly anyone thinks food waste is good, and just emphasizing that a bad thing is worse than you thought isn’t likely to change behavior. A campaign might have clever writing, great visual design, and a memorable message, but it’s up against a powerful opponent: inertia. People and institutions have set habits around the way they do things—including how they serve and consume food—and changing habits is hard.
So when Ziba partnered with WWF to develop the Toolkit for Communicating Food Waste to Guests, we started by focusing on changing behaviors rather than making an argument or conveying a piece of information. Behavior change, after all, is part of most design problems, whether you’re trying to convince customers to embrace a new type of product, or design a health or fitness service that encourages healthier habits. If you view food waste through a similar lens, a whole new set of approaches snaps into view.
Start with research.
For one thing, we realized we needed to start the same way we do in most of our design projects: with research. For food waste, this meant meeting diners and guests where they were—at the hotel breakfast buffet, for instance— observing and interviewing them on how they responded to different messaging approaches. It also meant talking with guest services managers and waitstaff about their experiences, as well as running surveys and focus groups.
What we learned was a little surprising. Everyone, from managers and servers to guests and diners, already wants to do their part to help reduce food waste. But they also have clear ideas of what they’re “supposed” to do in situations like a hotel buffet or cruise ship dining room. Doing what’s right for the planet is important for lots of people, but so is wanting to follow social norms, avoid extra effort, and enjoy the meal, cruise, or vacation they’ve spent so much money and effort planning.
Assume people want to help.
Our research also showed that people like being part of the solution, even if it takes personal sacrifice—but the actions they’re asked to take need to line up with their own self-identity, and provide a positive emotional payoff. So they’re far less responsive to lectures and shaming, which can often result in defiance and dismissal.
The toolkit we designed celebrates the positive impact of decisions that guests make, and connects their actions to a larger, global movement. If you’ve ever seen those notecards in hotel rooms explaining more eco-friendly policies toward towel and linen laundering, you might’ve noticed how they talk about making good decisions for the planet, rather than dwelling on guilt and waste. They also present the more sustainable action as the default: you’re welcome to get fresh towels every day, but you have to ask for them.
Put the right message in the right place.
One of the best ways to ensure environmental considerations don’t get pushed aside is to put a relevant message right there, at the point of decision. When we have a moment to weigh our options, abstract considerations like sustainability become part of the decision. But in a busy buffet line, or when ordering from a rushed waiter, they’re easy to forget.
So as the Ziba team developed the toolkit, we considered when and where messages are placed just as carefully as what they say. One size does not fit all in a hotel, restaurant or resort environment. It’s important to have quick, actionable messages as you’re deciding what to order or how much to take; in an elevator or lobby, on the other hand, a more nuanced and conversational message can help to make the food waste challenge feel approachable and solvable.
Be inspirational and directive, not prescriptive.
Finally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that every setting is unique, and the hospitality and brand managers who run them know them better than anyone. There’s a lot of inertia in the guest services industry, which is one reason change has been so slow. But these people are professionals, and just like their guests, they want to make choices that are better for the planet.
Managers, in fact, are actually far more aware of the food waste problem than most guests, because they see its cumulative effects first hand. But they also have a responsibility to not alienate their guests. That’s why the WWF toolkit includes an in-depth discussion of guest mindset and research findings, and it offers plenty of flexibility for managers to customize their own campaigns, or create one from scratch.
The result has been overwhelmingly positive. By treating it as a behavior change campaign, and taking an audience-centered approach, we were able to deliver WWF something unusually accessible, customizable, non-preachy, and ultimately effective. The tools and mechanisms of behavior change are no longer a mystery — the real mystery is why it’s taking so long for the rest of us to start using them!