All over the UK and the USA, people are being nudged to behave. For example, you cannot renew your drivers licence or your car tax in the UK without being nudged into being an organ doner.
All this nudging has been triggered by behavioral economists Professor Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book – Nudge. The book includes various examples of how simple nudges can help people make healthier food choices, reduce cleaning costs, and so on. Instead of telling people what to do or leaving them to behave in self-defeating ways, the state can ‘nudge’ people into behaving positively. As policy makers are often looking for a quick fix or magic bullet, many of them and our politicians have caught the ‘Nudge bug’.
Nudges can be characterised as:
- Positive i.e. they give positive rewards
- Passive / easy, i.e. require little effort
- Low cost, to both the person targeted and to the government or organisation utilizing them (consequently they can be highly cost effective)
By low cost, from a social marketing perspective, we are not just talking about monitory costs, but also social and psychological costs.
But basically, in a nut-shell – it is about giving people a gentle and subtle nudge in the right direction. Many of the nudges described in Thaler and Sunstein’s 2008 book, are things that are done sub-consciously.
But what nudges can be done to help solve the plastic waste issue?
- Many cafés offer discount coffees to reward bringing reusable cups – I get 10% off at one of my local cafes, and two loyalty stamps at another one. But not enough places are doing this – they all should as surely it saves them money as well?!? But what I like is that they are starting to not just sell reusable cups, but they are making beautiful ones – as I talked about in my last blog post what S’well has done for water bottles, some companies are going for coffee cups. I think this cool factor is really important as we are still sadly aiming at the ‘early adopters’ in this.
- Japan retailers “changed the default” and increased the refusal rate of plastic bags to 40% after six months of cashiers simply asking people if they wanted a bag.
- One of my favourites is the plastic bottle return scheme in Norway. Norway’s bottle recycling system (called ‘panteordning’), involves an extra charge being added to recyclable products, which is paid back when you bring them back to a return point. It requires little effort, as they have these machines at many of the supermarkets and other food shops. I love this idea and the results are positive. Although I do think we still need to reduce as oppose to recycle for maximum impact, but this is a good stepping stone measure as reprograming our habits takes time.
As you can see from these few examples, we already do a lot of ‘nudges’ in this area. Although I am not sure they are sub-conscious nudges yet, and with numerous studies showing that only 5% of our cognitive activities (decisions and behaviour) is conscious, I think those sub-conscious nudges are the way to achieve long-lasting and mass population behaviour changes.
As always on this issue, there is a lot more to do! And when it comes to getting wealthy governments to commit large sums of money to sort this problem, for example, getting the US and China to start putting their hands in their pockets and lead in cleaning up the giant garbage patch in the Pacific – well, then I think it is more shove as opposed to nudge. Maybe that can be the title of Thaler and Sunstein’s next best seller?!?