Nudging to promote sustainability

Nudging, a technique of influencing people’s choices without mandating any behaviours, aims to encourage people to make positive decisions. Nudging can be applied in many areas of life, including increasing and promoting sustainability.

As environmental issues and rapidly advancing climate change affect the wellbeing of societies around the world and therefore are a global concern, it is important to look for solutions. 

As Siaw-Chui Wee explains ‘human behaviour is generally not environmentally friendly in doing daily living activities such as littering, excessive vehicle use, wasteful resources consumption, combustion of fossil fuel, consume non-recyclable products and consume non-organic products.’ Hence, guiding people to change these behaviours is essential to help them improve the quality of their lives.

Importance of making sustainable choices

Changing our habits can have benefits not just for us but also for society as a whole. After all, if we increase sustainability, we decrease harm to the environment. In turn, everyone can enjoy better air quality and cleaner surroundings.

When it comes to nudging, ‘among a wide range of possible choices, individuals are encouraged to conserve energy and natural resources at home and in the workplace, by making changes to their travel and commuting habits, and by choosing foods and other goods that are sourced from environmentally-sensitive production practices,’ the Guardian explains.

People need to think globally and understand what the consequences of their actions are. By doing so, everyone can make a real difference. Similarly, policies introduced by policymakers have to take into consideration goals of entire societies.

Here are the main reasons why making community habits more sustainable is important:

  • Improves air quality and reduces air pollution
  • Conserves natural resources that are limited
  • Improves the health of those in the community
  • Allows the community to grow
  • Preserves resources for future generations
  • Helps slow climate change
  • Boosts economic development.

How does nudging work?

As explained by Siaw-Chui Wee, ‘nudging is an approach that changes people’s behaviour by altering the decision-making environment in order to influence people’s decisions when choosing on what to act. Its implementation has to be easy, cheap and not mandatory (Thaler and Sustein, 2008). Nudging influences people’s choice of actions without limiting their options or enforcing rules and regulations. Instead, it guides people in a desired direction when making decisions by erecting cues in the environment (Weßel et al., 2019). Without depriving any existing options, people’s decisions can be improved by making changes on how the desired options are presented to them within the context (Schmidt and Engelen, 2020). Apart from that, nudging should not significantly change the financial situation of people before and after the nudging.’

So, the key thing about nudging is that it does not restrict people’s options and does not force them to act in a certain way. It simply suggests what the desired behaviour is. Nudging can be tricky as people’s behaviours can be unpredictable and sometimes they can make a decision different to the demanded one. At the same time, nudging helps us understand the way in which people make decisions and nudges are worth the effort.

Green nudging to promote sustainable consumption

Sustainable consumption relates to the use of services essential to fulfil basic needs while minimising the usage of natural resources and releasing as little waste and pollutants as possible. Overconsumption and wasting things such as water or energy is a problem that many societies around the world deal with. Nudging can help, for example, reduce food waste or decrease the amount of single-use plastic that people use.

An example of a nudge to reduce waste is offering smaller plates at a buffet. This way people are encouraged to put less food on their plate and consequently less food is being left. What often happens at buffets is that people take so much food on their plates that they are not able to finish it after. Similarly, selling smaller portions right from the start can be a better idea than trying to encourage customers by offering huge meals and then having people not being able to finish them.

Another example of a nudge that can be used to reduce food waste is getting rid of trays from cafeterias. When people are given a tray they are likely to take more food than if they have to use their hands to carry it. 

Unfortunately changing people’s habits at home is more difficult and consumers are ‘the biggest contributors to food waste,’ ReFED explains. It also adds that ‘Households trash 30 million tons of food annually, and diners in restaurants leave another nearly 9 million tons of uneaten food on their plates. All told, we, the people, account for nearly 50 percent of all surplus food in the U.S.’

To be able to change that, raising people’s awareness about why throwing food away is bad is necessary. ‘According to ReFED’s Insights Engine, reshaping food environments and the broader culture in ways that encourage consumers to be less wasteful is both affordable and effective: An investment of $1.4 billion per year could eliminate 7 million tons of waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 34 million metric tons, and produce a net financial benefit of a whopping $27.4 billion — the highest return on investment in our analysis.’

Benefits of green nudging

Green nudging is an effective way to promote sustainability and improve the life quality of not only individuals but also entire societies. It is important that we all undertake steps to prevent climate change, reduce food waste, and decrease emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Nudging is a strategy that can help achieve these goals without forcing people to do something they would not want to do.

When using nudging people have the impression of making certain decisions themselves and they can feel good when they realise how beneficial these changes are. This is why nudging is way more successful than introducing mandates and laws that require people to act a certain way. When people have to do something because of law enforcement, they often feel frustrated and refuse to do that even if the action could bring them certain advantages.