When it comes to healthy living, changing age-old habits is not always easy. Today in Canada, one in four children is overweight or obese, and less than 7% of children are physically active each day.
In light of these daunting statistics, a businessapproach can offer an immense opportunity for sustainable change.
“You will never be able to achieve true scale through charity or a pure ‘do good’ mentality,” said Andreas Souvaliotis, a Thought Leader of The Play Exchange challenge and the Executive Chairman of Social Change Rewards, a social venture that uses a reward-approach to incentivize healthier or greener consumer choices.
As a serial entrepreneur, Souvaliotis made the switch from CEO of a prominent retail agency to harnessing the power and reach of the marketing industry for social good. He shares some best practices for improving the scale and impact of any health-based initiative.
Ashoka: What are the greatest barriers to healthy living in Canada today, and how do we start moving beyond them?
Andreas Souvaliotis: When it comes to healthy living, it really comes down to two things: one is activity and the second is nutrition. Activity is primarily a habits-based issue. If people don’t develop the right habits then they don’t maintain the right habits.
That is where the change starts from, and that is where the nudge theory (from the book Nudge) works beautifully. If you find ways to nudge people towards developing better habits then they’ll stick. The same also applies to nutrition. If you nudge people towards healthier nutrition decisions, then eventually those decisions become habit-forming.
Ashoka: Do you have other concrete examples of nudge theory in action?
Souvaliotis: Yes! The most basic example of nudge theory in action is that instead of trying to get people to not eat hamburgers (where you’ll never succeed), you take every single hamburger that’s available in the city of Vancouver and reduce its size by two percent.
Nobody would notice the reduction and yet, across three million people, a two percent reduction in the cholesterol people consume daily will have a significant, long-term effect. Nudging means moving in imperceptible steps that do not create backlash or resistance. In that way, you can move people towards better habit-forming behavior.
Ashoka: From a practical standpoint, how can we make sure that nudging towards healthier living is both sustainable and scalable from the start?
Souvaliotis: The first step is to find a part of your idea that makes business sense. Nudging doesn’t make sense unless you have scale, and scale isn’t obtainable unless you have a really powerful business engine behind the idea. For example, don’t try to be simply sacrificial in saying, “I’ll take some rich guy’s donation and try to nudge a few people towards healthier behavior”—you can’t do that. You will never be able to achieve true scale through charity or a pure “do good” mentality.
Ashoka: People are oftentimes resistant to change at first. What should be the pace of nudging in order to avoid major backlash.
Souvaliotis: When disrupting the status quo, it needs to be done very, very gradually. If you disrupt it too much, the backlash goes back even further. Let me give you one more example on nudge theory that will solidify the impression. In the Nudge book, they give an example where a school in the U.S. tries to get kids to eat healthier. Initially, the more the school tries, the more the kids don’t eat at the cafeteria at all. Instead, they cross the street and go to Pizza Hut.
But if you subtly change the food in school cafeterias so that the kids don’t even notice the change, then you will be more successful at changing their behavior. The kids won’t leave to go to Pizza Hut because they would rather stay on campus. They still are eating junk, but they’re eating less and less junk over time. Eventually, the behavior becomes so habit forming that they don’t even have the urge to go and eat at the Pizza Hut across the street.
Ashoka: What will the world look like in 10 years if you and all of the changemakers in Canada are successful in creating a mindset shift towards healthier living?
Souvaliotis: I’ll give you the answer from a different angle. We often talk about citizens and the end result. We should also talk about what is possible in terms of changing the machine. How will the machine look ten years from now? All of those who have the same objective—whether it’s an NGO, a government agency, or a private sector organization like the one I used to run—are theoretically gunning for the same target of social change.
However, the polarized world has NGOs at one end of the triangle, government at the other and private sector at the third with each sector looking quite different from the rest. That kind of world is yesterday’s world. We’re moving much more towards a fused model. I see that change happening very quickly, but I think it will take ten years for us to see real visual results, as all sectors find more overlap between their shared goal.
Ashoka: If McDonald’s were to make creating healthy kids their mission, where does the shift come from? What is the role of leadership in creating company-wide buy-in?
This does not, however, neutralize or counter the role of the NGO. Instead, NGOs are even more important because they are the ones who get it. Every Coke and McDonald’s will need an NGO partner. They will need the credibility, the authenticity, and the guidance to go make it happen. When Coke got involved with climate change, they never moved one millimeter on their own. They always had WWF by their side. It makes everyone relevant, which makes the whole model far more authentic and far more effective.Souvaliotis: Leadership buy-in is absolutely essential, and once upon a time, it only came from the enlightened leaders. Now, this concept has gotten so much momentum that it’s getting to the point where businesses can’t afford not to harness the reach of their brands to change the world.
Featured: Young girl in Nova Scotia enjoying blueberries - a healthy snack! via Shutterstock.