Individuals behaviour plays a major role in consumption and it can often be challenging to change this behaviour. The billions of small decisions that people all over the world make each day have significant impacts on our planet’s natural resources. From purchasing food, to choosing whether we drive or take a bus to work; from turning up the heat to lowering the air conditioner; from letting the water tap run to sorting cans and bottles, all of these actions have consequences.
The field of behavioural science, which includes behavioural economics, psychology, and other social sciences, offers practical insights for designing policies that are better aligned with human decision-making processes. Behaviourally informed policy tools and interventions can help consumers better evaluate costs and benefits and shift their behaviour towards more sustainable consumption patterns.
Nudge theory, one of the concepts of behavioural economics is based on the idea of manipulating individual’s cognition barrier and enable them to make better decisions for themselves. Nudge theory recommends the usage of the underlying subconscious processes influencing our decision making to “nudge” individuals in the direction that would be best for their well-being. These decisions are also influenced by the surrounding environment, termed as choice architecture. Any alteration in the choice architecture can affect the behaviour of an individual to a major extent.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have given us less than 15 years to fulfil ambitious goals, including achieving changes in how we consume and produce. The SDG 12 on Responsible Consumption and Production specifies that urgent action is needed to ensure that current material needs do not lead to the over extraction of resources or to the degradation of environmental resources, and should include policies that improve resource efficiency, reduce waste and mainstream sustainability practices across all sectors of the economy.
Considering the long-term effect of the unsustainable demand and consumption of natural resources, it is crucial we take actions to solve this problem for a secure future of all the species. We must develop strategies to decouple economic growth and human wellbeing from the unsustainable use of natural resources.
Nudge theory could help consumers make better choices, reduce waste, and inculcate the habits we need to build a more sustainable world. It gives a way to understanding how human decision-making can provide insights on designing more effective policies and interventions on sustainable consumption.
An individual’s consumption patterns are based on many habitual behaviours. Research by academics at Duke University discovered that over 40% of the actions that people take every day are not actually active decisions, but habits. To overcome this, cues or prompts in the form of a nudge can help change habitual behaviours and move individuals towards a sustainable behaviour. Physical cues result in change in the physical environment which influences an individual’s behaviour to a significant level. Even a small change in design of the product can impact the decision making.
For example, an experiment was conducted at the Danish Opera House where a standing lunch for 220 CEOs was arranged featuring two identical buffets with plates of two different sizes. One buffet featured standard sized plates (27cm). A second buffet featured smaller sized plates (24cm). After the lunch concluded, all leftover food was collected in designated trash bags according to size of plates and weighed in bulk. It was observed that those eating from smaller plates left significantly less food to waste than participants eating from standard plates. This example shows how a physical cue like change in plate size resulted in significant reductions in food waste from buffets.
It is often hard to understand the impact on the resources which we cannot see. This leads to overconsumption of “invisible resources” such as energy. In day to day life, the individual is unaware of its consumption pattern like use of energy and water. This leads to the focus being more on the immediate cost and benefits rather than discounting for future impacts. This phenomenon is known as present bias which makes an individual want to work towards the present reward over future reward. This bias can be reduced by showcasing the present reward in the future.
For example, it is a common scenario that energy efficient bulbs can cost a consumer more than a traditional light bulb. In such a case, simplifying complex information (savings and costs of traditional light bulbs versus more efficient options) and presenting it in a timely manner (the moment before a consumer’s purchase in a store) can reduce consumer’s bias towards present costs.
It is a common behaviour that an individual is concerned about the current environment issues but at the same time they don’t end up taking any action to show this concern. This disconnect happens because the individuals tend to believe that although there are global matters and problems like climate change, but it is does not affect them directly. To avoid this, it is important to emphasize on the personal impact that the issues related to climate change might have on the individual.
For example, US citizens in the state of California were able to reduce their electricity consumption significantly when a personal impact like adverse effect of electricity consumption on their health was communicated along with monthly electricity bill rather than a financial saving figure due to less electricity consumption. Hence, more personal the impact the more likely an individual will respond by using energy efficiently.
Humans are called social beings as they can judge how to act in social scenarios. They get affected by their surrounding social environment, an environmental action like recycling in the neighbourhood can act as a positive social norm and can be a cue for the individual to adopt similar actions. Similarly, the consumption behaviour of individuals is significantly influenced by the consumption patterns of their peers. But sometimes, these social norms can also make it difficult for an individual to adopt sustainable consumption patterns which might not be considered normal in their peer group. To avoid this, Social norms can be used in the form of a social reward to promote sustainable consumption for example energy savings.
As a case from a Dutch firm which introduced a reward program on employee energy use, it was observed that social rewards (grades and comments) led to greater energy conservation than monetary rewards (money and no comments), and also, public feedback (disclosure of results to peers) led to greater energy conservation than private feedback (no disclosure of results to peers).
Framing of choices and default options can influence our behaviour and reduce hassles. It is important how the options are presented to an individual as it might push him or her towards a non-sustainable option unintentionally. Keeping this in mind, Default options are known to be more sustainable as we tend to not change the default setup, whether in a printer or any other energy consuming gadget. If the default options since the beginning are set up to an environment friendly option like for example, a printer having a default setting which results in printing on both sides of the paper instead on just one side will result in more resource savings.
Framing of options plays an important role as it is a conscious phrasing of information in a way that activates certain values and attitudes of individuals. A typical example of framing can be that of the Energy Star label. The label is very easily distinguishable by customers without any extra knowledge and also simplifies the information individual had to process to make a purchase decision.
It is crucial to acknowledge that the volatile global environment requires the policymakers, implementation agencies and other stakeholders to address the importance of adopting behavioural interventions like Nudge in order to move towards increased sustainable consumption practices. The five techniques mentioned above are increasingly being adopted by many government bodies and many development organisations globally have launched programs over the years to support such behavioural sciences interventions. A behavioural nudge in itself might not be the answer to all our sustainable consumption concerns. However, it is surely a starting step that helps us reconsider our choices and show a positive path towards a sustainable lifestyle.
You may reach out to SUSTENT Consulting in case you need additional guidance and support in implementation of sustainable consumption interventions using behavioural insights. The SUSTENT team has 12 years of extensive experience with implementing projects on sustainable production and consumption across Asia.
Cooper, E. J. (2017). To Nudge or Not to Nudge: Promoting Environmentally Beneficial Behaviors. Bard Center for Environmental Policy.
Size matter! A field experiment in reducing food waste. (n.d.). Retrieved from The European Nudging Network: http://tenudge.eu/project/size-matter-a-field-experiment-in-reducing-food-waste/
Sustainable Development Goals. (n.d.). Retrieved from Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform : https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg12
United Nations Environment Programme. ( 2017). Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably: Behavioural Insights.