Could "Green Nudges" Be Enough to Push Us in a Better Direction?

TerraCycle's Mail-in Envelope for Target Bags© TerraCyle

This is a guest post from Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, the world’s first company that manufactures and packages products from garbage.

I recently came across this article on environmental persuasion on, and was inspired by the realism it represented.

The article talks about the efficacy of subtle messages – or “nudges” – to encourage eco-friendly behavior. While some people may argue that they don’t want their thinking influenced by subtle messages from others, the fact that the messaging seems to have worked remains nonetheless (not to mention that people’s thinking every day is influenced by other subtle messages – think about TV commercials!)

So if these “nudges’ an be used to influence our purchasing habits, can they not also be employed to help us make more responsible choices?

Part of the realism of the article was that people are unlikely to make giant leaps towards being more environmentally responsible.

Just as in life in general, they should take baby steps first, as a way to ease regular consumers into serious change. Just like with New Year’s Resolutions, it’s more likely that changes won’t last when they are drastic and implemented immediately and harshly. With baby steps, you can make smaller commitments in order to well prepare yourself for the larger commitments and adjust to changes.

Behavior change

A saying goes that “90% of people changing 10% of their behavior will have a larger impact than 10% of people changing 90% of their behavior.” If everyone changes just a little bit, we’ll have impactful change out of the mainstream – more so than major change among people who are already consider “dark green” consumers.

By using subtle hints and directions, we can move towards having 90% of people change 10% of their behavior. And this is only talking about the minor, easiest things like taking the stairs or using the recycling bin instead of the trash bin. When the average consumer sees that making environmentally and socially responsible choices and changes can be easy and even save money, they will be more willing to take bigger steps.

The caveat here is that this strategy can only be used for “the middle.” By “the middle,” I mean those people who are not already actively changing their habits and paying attention to their impact. It won’t work for those who are already committed to living responsibly – like most Treehugger readers I imagine.

It also won’t work well for the people who actively do not care or don’t believe in the science of what is going in our environment. They’d be likely to ignore the nudges, or not even notice them at all. Convenience and speed is key, so I imagine they would likely just stick to the habits they are used to – the ones that bring them the most ease in their day to day life.

Target plastic shopping bags being mailed to TerraCycle.© TerraCycle

How to incentivize change

One way of reaching these people, I think, is incentivizing change . This is how TerraCycle’s recycling programs motivate behavior, by offering money donated to charity or a school for every item sent to us. But the thing about incentives is that sometimes they can’t last forever, and for some people, they may not be enough.

TerraCycle also partnered with retailer Target to make the covers of magazines like Newsweek double as mailers so that people could mail in their Target plastic shopping bags for recycling.

It was free to mail in, the mailing envelopes were at their fingertips, and when they sent bags in, they would receive a coupon to go buy at Target (made from the original shopping bags). This nudge and incentive saw great success, with 41,000 people sending in their plastic bags and 60% redeeming their coupons.

What else can we do? How can we effect change to the people who are hardest to reach and make it last? Can we do this without incentives, or will those always need to stick around? Are baby steps, “too-little, too-late”?

These are important questions as we try to push responsibility from a passing trend to a mainstream stalwart.

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