Riding Your Elephant Part II: Examples of Change in the Apparel Industry

by Sarah Kear

For a summary of Chip and Dan Heath’s Rider, Elephant and Path, in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, please read Part I.

Leaders of Successful Change need to be paying attention to all three – directing the Rider, motivating the Elephant and shaping the Path.  Part II explores strategies for doing so in the following apparel industry examples.

Bright Spots. When faced with a particularly big challenge, the Rider tends to see problems to be analyzed and plans to be made.  The down side of this is that the Rider can get stuck in thinking about the best courses of action so thoroughly that in the end there is no clear path.  The Heath Brothers (along with those who practice Appreciative Inquiry), suggest that shifting the focus to the Bright Spots, or what is already working, is an excellent path out of this analysis paralysis.  Once the Bright Spots are found, the Rider is cleared to replicate the success, and then scale it.

I think a great example of a Bright Spot story can be found in the t-shirts of social enterprise, Me To We.  Fifty percent of Me to We’s profits go to its “best friend” of Free the Children, a charity that catalyzed around the issue of child labour.  Before Me to We was founded, Free the Children was faced with a monumental problem.  The first was an economic system so flawed that it could prey on vulnerable children for their cheap labour in Sweat Shops.  The second was fundraising for their work.  When it first started out, Me to We focused on one Bright Spot to address both of these problems.  T-shirts — the go-to of countless charity fundraisers.  However these t-shirts were organic cotton and made in factories with excellent labour conditions (i.e. system change), and were sold en-masse to schools and corporations that wanted to support responsible business (i.e. very successful fundraising).  Today, Me to We has scaled the success of the original t-shirt offering, to include other items of clothing, music, jewelry, and even leadership camps.

Shrink the Change. Because the Elephant part of our brain is so easily scared away from making sacrifices or doing hard work, one strategy to get it motivated is to create a sense of early success by Shrinking the Change.  This can be done by “limiting the investment” of time, money, or effort, but also by marking out “small wins” that are within reach.  The Elephant needs encouragement – especially at the beginning of the journey.  By “lowering the bar” like this, the Heath’s suggest that you’re actually feeding the motivation of the Elephant by “engineering hope.”

A striking example of Shrinking the Change is the Better Cotton Initiative, whose mission is “to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.”  Interestingly enough, the terms sustainability, certified organic or fair trade cannot be found anywhere on the website.  Even more telling, in my opinion, is who the members/ funders are: H&M, George (Walmart), Addidas, Nike, and Levi Straus and Co., (amongst many others from civil society, such as WWF Sweden, and the supply and manufacturing industry).  Several of these big retailers, like Walmart and H&M, have been fairly public about integrating sustainability into their business model, but at the same time, I think they must have very skittish Elephants.  Returning to cotton, one of the largest industries on the globe, employs 300 million people.  Some are mega retailers, but many more are people living on the edge of poverty. For all of these players, sustainability,  fair trade or certified organic must look like a mountain to climb with huge risks in time and money.  The Better Cotton Initiative seems to be about transitioning the industry, or Shrinking the Change, with achievable goals and reduced risk.  This both soothes and motivates the Elephants.

Building Habits is one of the best ways to keep the Path to change clear of obstacles.  Since the self-discipline of learning something new can be exhausting, engineering automatic patterns of behaviour (i.e. habits) into the learning process reduces the friction between Rider and the Elephant.

In 2007, Marks and Spencer (M&S) launched Plan A with an ambitious vision of becoming the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2015.  One of their 180 goals is to encourage customers to recycle their unwanted M&S clothing.  But how does a company attempt to build a customer habit after they’ve left the store?  To do this they partnered with Oxfam, a popular charity for used clothing donation, and upped the ante with a voucher to ensure that more than just the usual suspects participated.  Anyone who brought in a donation of clothing to Oxfam containing at least one item of M&S clothing received $7 dollars towards their next purchase at M&S.  In this way M&S is doing what the Heath’s call “pre-loading a difficult decision.”  They want hoards of M&S shoppers to make the new habit of recycling their clothing, as opposed to sending it to landfill, and to do so they are making it easier with a cash reward.  Since this offer is not time limited, M&S is hopping the new habits will stick.  (Incidentally the program has now made $4.5 million for Oxfam because of the increased visits to their charity shops.  Plan A has made $73 million in profits for M&S.)

To explore the other great strategies Chip and Dan Heath suggest, you can check out their new book, or this great one page Switch Framework.

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