How behavioural science can help us make environmentally responsible choices

Author BIOPublished 4 Min Read

We all know we should recycle more, use less plastic, eat less meat and basically make more sustainable choices. We also understand that disaster lies ahead if we don’t. But unfortunately, humans aren’t logical creatures and being told what we should and shouldn’t do isn’t always enough to make people change their behaviour. Our brains simply find it very difficult to prioritise long-term benefits over short-term convenience or habit. It’s also easy to think what’s the point, that one person’s behaviour doesn’t make a difference. However, a report by Rare finds that scaling up behaviour change across the world could reduce 1/3 of projected global emissions between 2020 and 2050. The effect of a collective change in behaviour is profound.

Rather than just talk about change, we need to look to behavioural science to nudge people towards more responsible choices, as well as putting legislation in place that guides people towards a sustainable lifestyle.  Here are some of the tactics we can use.

Set the default option to the desired option
Airline booking sites can dramatically increase the amount of people who choose to offset carbon by making it the default, simply because it’s a shortcut, saving time on decision making. Likewise, people are far more likely to choose a ‘green’ energy choice over another, even if it’s more expensive, when it’s the already-chosen, ‘socially sanctioned’ option. The pull of the default option is so strong that in the UK organ donation will become the default option in 2020, rather than today’s opt-in ‘donor card’ system. The hope is that this will save the lives of hundreds of people waiting for organ transplants.

Make the ‘bad’ option a little less attractive
It’s hard to change a habit like being given a plastic bag at the till, but as we know, making large retailers charge 5p for them from has cut the number of bags given out in the UK from 7.6 billion in 2014 to 1.75 billion in 2017-2018. This means the average person only took home 19 bags in 2017/18 per compared with 140 bags each before the charge was introduced, a drop of 86%. In addition, retailers were encouraged to give the proceeds to good causes; 2/3 of them did and have raised £66 million.  

…or remove it entirely
A number of countries have banned single-use plastic bags altogether with African nations leading the way. Nigeria banned the manufacture and distribution of plastic bags in April this year. Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2006 and has an ambition to be the world’s first plastic-free nation. Goldsmiths, University of London has just announced a ban on selling beef products across its campus as part of its bid to become carbon neutral by 2025. The UK government has recently announced a ban on plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds from 2020.

Offer incentives
Morrisons is encouraging shoppers to bring plastic containers to for their meat and fish. Stickers will be converted to 100 loyalty points at the till, equivalent to 10p per container. Many coffee chains like Starbucks and Pret a Manger offer discounts for people bringing their own reusable coffee cup. Camden Council encourages people to recycle more by gamifying the process. Residents who sign up now get a discount card for local businesses, earn ‘green points’ by reporting how much they recycle and can win monthly prizes. The scheme has seen a 10% increase in recycling in a year.

Make messages local and positive
People find it hard to relate to things happening far away but will be jolted into action by things happening in their local community. It’s been suggested that local pride also plays a part; messaging about what’s going on in the local area can encourage more people to get involved. Focusing on positive solutions and actions may also be more effective than scare stories. Penzance has become the UK’s first plastic-free town, with a ban on plastic takeaway packaging and other single-use plastics.

Switch physical cues to conquer habitual behaviour
Habits are hard to break, but a small change in the environment can alter people’s behaviour. For instance, in San Jose, California, the local government improved recycling and lowered the amount of rubbish collection needed just by making their employee’s rubbish bins much smaller than the ones for recycling. Small bins meant that people had to think more about what they were throwing away.

Tell people what others are doing
When you see other people being careful to recycle or putting their litter in the bin where it belongs, you’re likely to do the same. Putting up signs that reinforce desirable behaviour whether it’s re-using hotel towels or passing on a plastic bag, guides people to making better choices. Statistics, e.g. ‘80% of our customers are re-using towels to help our environment’ will strengthen these messages.

Saving our environment may seem daunting when we consider the size of the task humanity has made for itself: the tons of plastic in the ocean, the threat of climate change, the forests already cut down for logging. But as previously mentioned, if we can all take small, positive actions, nudged along by behavioural science and backed up by governments valuing the environment over short-term profit, it’s not an impossible task. Let’s get to it.

 

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