A gentle nudge over the green rubicon: How to change social norms and make your business greener

Will Hanmer-Lloyd
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” By changing the name of the bin to “landfill” it reminds consumers of where the rubbish will eventually end up, (Source: Getty)

According to a government report, some 71 per cent of UK citizens are “very or fairly concerned” about climate change, while nearly the same percentage believe that it poses a high level of risk to people’s health and wellbeing.

In our daily lives, concerns we may have are infrequently matched by our actions – especially in the office. This is due to the “drop in the bucket effect”, where we believe our potential impact to be so small, it is insignificant. As the perceived benefit is in the future, saving the planet rarely tops our hierachy of needs as individuals.


As such, we need to help our colleagues to overcome this inertia when it comes to being greener.

Increasingly, behavioural economics, and the accompanying research into decision-making, suggests that the best method for this is using social norms to encourage us to be green.

Social norms are group rules that determine what is “acceptable” – or not – for certain groups. We tend to underestimate the extent to which we are motivated by social norms, basing much of our individual behaviour on how other people act, or on how we perceive they act.

An often attributed example of this tactic is when Obama was looking to increase voter turnout in 2008. His team issued a simple press release stating that there had been “a record turnout expected” at the polls that year. Lo and behold, groups which wouldn’t usually do so came out to vote in droves.

There are three principal social norms techniques that could nudge your office into reducing its carbon footprint – here they are:

Three techniques

One is called the “landfill nudge.” By changing the name of the bin to “landfill” it reminds consumers of where the rubbish will eventually end up, and lessens the social norm that most rubbish should go in the waste bin.

To reduce this norm further, the recycling bin should be bigger in size than the general waste bin, as in an office most rubbish is recyclable. Having a mini waste-bin acts as a visual sign for employees when they discard something, indicating that the social norm is for rubbish to be put in the recycling bin.

Amplify responses

In one six-week exercise, 140,000 people were sent a variety of letters by HMRC. One stressed the need to pay outstanding taxes, while others contained statements such as “nine out of 10 people in Britain pay their tax on time”. Letters emphasising such social norms produced a 15 per cent higher response rate than the standard letter.

As such, messaging about being environmentally conscious in an office should focus more on what other people have been doing, and less on what the benefits of being environmental are.

Unconscious bias

Smiling and frowning faces can have an incredible impact on humans. Speeding signs offer an interesting example of this.

A frowning face, as opposed to a speed camera, is more effective than the threat of a speeding fine.

Using this insight, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District sent out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared to their neighbours. Smiley faces were used to rate conservation levels and resulted in a 2.8 per cent reduction in energy use.

Offices can use this insight within their email and other communication, rating departments’ ecological performance using smiley faces instead of words, as this will tap into social norms more effectively.

The key lesson here for offices is that they shouldn’t only try to encourage green behaviour by telling their employees of the benefits, but by using implicit and explicit tactics to show that others are already taking steps to reduce waste. This will have a bigger impact, at a minimal cost.

Will Hanmer-Lloyd is behavioural planning director at Total Media.

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