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Make your office greener with behavioural science

03 Jun 2019  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
Make your office greener with behavioural science

Exploiting the subtle psychological quirks that define human behaviour can make office workers act much more sustainably, writes William Hanmer-Lloyd

72% of people in the UK are very concerned or fairly concerned about climate change, and two in three of us agree that the planet is in a climate emergency. However, when it comes to the office our concern is often not matched by our behaviour.

There are lots of reasons for this. One is temporal discounting, which causes us to care less about the future than we admit, and also puts our intentions out of sync with our actions (as shown by the biscuits we regret eating every meeting). Most importantly, our behaviour differs because of the “drop in the bucket effect,” where we believe that because our impact is so small, it is not important whether we change or not.

If we want to drive successful long term adoption of green behaviour in the office we need to use insights from behavioural economics to help people overcome this inertia and drive motivation.

One of the key ways we can do this is to tap into the power of social norms. Social norms are what we perceive to be the acceptable or unacceptable behaviour for our group. We often underestimate how much of an impact they have on our actions, and how much we adapt our behaviour to fit them.


Small additions to communications can significantly encourage behaviour change.

In 2004, Robert Cialdini ran an experiment, testing what messaging would get people to conserve more energy. In San Diego he left a of range of messages on front doors urging residents to conserve energy. This included telling residents that they should conserve energy to help future generations or to save money and saying that others in the neighbourhood had already started reducing their energy use. The only message that worked was the one that let residents know that their neighbours had started reducing their energy usage. People didn’t change their behaviour based on rational persuasion, but they did change it to conform with what they believed others around them were doing.

As such, messaging in the office about being environmentally conscious should concentrate on what others are doing, creating the perception that everyone is changing their behaviour to be more environmentally friendly.

The worst thing a company could do is communicate how little current employees are currently doing, as this will create a social norm that it is okay to not be environmentally friendly.

Landfill nudge

Another tactic gaining popularity is a technique called the landfill nudge. This involves changing the labelling on a normal bin to a landfill to remind employees of where the rubbish will go, questioning the norm that rubbish goes in the normal bin. This can be emphasised more by making the recycling bin bigger than the landfill bin, acting as a visual cue that the social norm is to put rubbish in the recycling bin – hence why it is bigger.

Default choices

Another key way to drive environmental behaviour in the office is to make the default choices environmental. Humans are very biased towards the default choice, partly because of inertia bias, loss aversion and the fact that the default choice implies a social norm exists. Examples of this include printing on both sides of paper as the default or receiving pay checks via email.

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 minimal cost.

William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning.

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