Nudging people towards more sustainable behaviour

As much as we are aware of the worrying state of the planet and the part we play in it, many of us find it difficult to always make the right (aka “green”) decision. We may promise ourselves to be a better friend to the environment on Sunday night, come Thursday, it is easy to forget all about it when you have found yourself without a tote bag at the grocery store, without a keep cup at the café, craving a long bubble bath after a hard day at the office or lacking the energy to sort out the trash…After a few of these daily tasks turned into a struggle by our newly green conscious, we tend to retrieve to our old quick and easy, habits, leaving us feeling frustrated and guilty.

Truth is, we are faced daily with a multitude of choices that need to be made fast and keep our brain busy, and sometimes dizzy. So many decisions in fact,  that we wished we could automate it all. Which we do, for a big part, for some of it, through habits and routines.
Habits are things you do without even thinking about the process anymore (like brushing your teeth...hopefully) whereas routines, while also being repeated actions demand a bit more effort, your have decided to repeat them in a specific order but it still requires conscious thinking.
One of the reasons why it’s so hard to keep up with our green promises is that we are trying to integrate them into our routines, and that requires quite a bit of our attention. Success would be to magically turn them into habits. Easier said than done. Especially if it means having to first break down old habits to replace them by new greener ones.

And that is where nudges and choice architecture can help!

I first realised the power of nudging and the impact of the environment we are in on our decision making when I grew sick and tired of having to go fish through the recycle bin for the leftover food my housemates had recklessly thrown into the wrong bin. Why? Because for some unknown reason, the recycling bin had been placed in the kitchen while the glass and food bins were 3 meters away, in the hall. And so, my dear housemates took the path of least resistance.
Out of ideas and tired of blaming, I simply moved the kitchen bin into the hall with the others, “forcing” everyone to walk the 3 extra meters to throw anything and then consequently facing all three bins at once, making it much easier to do the right thing.
The underlying idea here, is to positively influence rather than try and obtain results through punishing or forbidding. As much as we need them, we don't tend to like rules. 


Richard H Thaler, economist and Nobel prize winner is behind those concepts which he presents in his 2008 book together with Cass Sunstein Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Simply put, choice architecture is the idea to respect the individual’s freedom of choice while gently influencing him/her towards what is considered the best option. And yes, it is widely used “against'' us by stores to sell us a bunch of things we do not need but we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we can also use that very same tool to push for  more environmental friendly choices.

The idea is to be so subtle that you will barely notice it and that it will facilitate the decision making. No need to set up all new processes, just tweak those in place a little bit. Great news for those of us who are often exhausting ourselves trying to convince friends and family to do the right thing. No more convincing to do, the built environment is doing it for us. Of course, this is not a bullet proof plan but it works.

More examples of nudging

In addition to the bin location suggestion above, other proven examples are:

  • using smaller plates and getting rid of trays in cafeterias to reduce food waste
  • charging for not using your own mug in cafes instead of the other way around (discount for those who do)  
  • displaying the greener options at eye level / first (in a store situation) 
  • using the greener option as the default option
  • never underestimate the power of positive peer pressure
  • in 2018 an experiment was made trying to nudge people to reduce the length of their shower by displaying the temperature as well as the digital image of a bear on his ice cap getting smaller as time passed...
  • More examples can be found in this article 


To conclude

A lot has been written about green nudges and their power. Several studies have been made around how to nudge towards more sustainable behaviors. This is simply a little teaser. If you want to know more we encourage you to read The Little Book of Green Nudges released in 2020 by the UN environment program that is aimed for Universities and their students but has lots of interesting information and examples that could apply to us all. If you want to go deeper on nudges themselves, check out Thaler’s book