Sustainable consumer behaviour: Turning the tide


Sustainable consumer behaviour

To change engrained waste and recycling behaviours, we first need to understand why they exist and what motivates humans to behave as they do, Peter Taylor-Whiffen writes.

“Pick a card, any card,” says the magician, before amazing us by identifying the one we have chosen. Even though we can’t see how the trick works, we know why it works: the magician knew the card we’d pick before we did. 

The conjuror’s sleight of hand makes us unaware that there is, in reality, only one option (in magic circles this is called “forcing”). Other times, there is a choice, but powerful subliminal cues mean we always act in the same way – something that’s become known as “nudging”.

Pick a card, any card.

Either way, our behaviour is manipulated to ensure we make the right decision without even realising. More magically still, exactly the same techniques can improve recycling rates and other waste-management behaviours.

“People tend to think human behaviour is driven by awareness, knowledge and attitudes,” says researcher Toby Park. “But our behaviour is actually far more influenced and driven by external, contextual or environmental factors that have nothing to do with our knowledge or attitudes.

“That’s why you find all these fun little experiments, such as changing the shape of bins: a slot for paper and a round hole for glass. That can increase recycling compliance and reduce contamination – not by educating, but by designing an environment in which it’s easier to do the right thing.”

Understanding what influences green behaviours is the focus of Park’s role as head of energy and sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team – a social consultancy that uses psychology, behavioural economics and marketing to influence public thinking. 

“The first lesson in effecting change is to make the desired behaviour as easy as possible,” says Park. “Ideally, you make it the only option, so even if someone doesn’t engage with the issue, they end up doing the right thing by default.”

Nudge theory: inspiring sustainable behaviour 


In terms of recycling and reducing waste, there are many approaches to take – in theory at least. “We could get rid of hybrid packaging that requires you to pull off plastic film from a sandwich packet. We could make labelling much clearer. We could improve infrastructure in terms of bins in public spaces, or home recycling. In practice, though, this is hard,” says Park. “We have a fragmented delivery model of recycling services, with many different contracts. It’s not economical to overhaul everything in one go.”

One research strand explored by the Behavioural Insights Team – which was set up in 2010 by David Cameron’s government, but is now owned by independent innovation charity Nesta – is nudge theory. This involves “gentle encouragements” that give us choice, but also make us subconsciously select the most positive outcome. 

“Nudge theory is any behaviour change intervention that doesn’t restrict or confine choice. It’s liberty-preserving. A mere nudge, as opposed to a ban or a mandate,” says Park. “A white line in a road to encourage you to stay to the left is a nudge. Putting healthier food next to a supermarket checkout in place of sweets is a nudge – but removing sweets from shops altogether is not.”

Nudge theory is any behaviour change intervention that doesn’t restrict or confine choice.

When it comes to waste, nudges can make it easy to take sustainably efficient decisions. Park’s team ran a trial to improve the recycling of bathroom waste, such as empty shampoo bottles. “Many people have a separate recycling bin or food caddy in their kitchen, but wouldn’t think to have one in their bathroom,” he says.

“Our trial involved a green sticker on products saying ‘recycle me’ and caddies hung on the back of the bathroom door. It halved the number of people who weren’t properly recycling bathroom waste and proves the point that removing frictions and inconvenience can be very impactful.”

The Behavioural Insights Team recently teamed up with the United Nations Environment Programme to draft The Little Book of Green Nudges, a free document containing 40 practical solutions, based on successful experiments in universities, that can be applied in the wider world.

Hubbub bins
Hubbub and KFC have set up Big Ballot Bins as part of project to tackle litter.

Its waste-management tips include making recycling bins more attractive than general waste bins, having specialised bin lids to encourage specific items, and discouraging food waste by offering smaller plates and no trays.

The term “nudge theory” was first coined by American economist Richard Thaler and lawyer Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge. While it directly and quickly targets subconscious behaviour, one of the criticisms of it is that it doesn’t always educate or change attitudes.

To successfully change behaviour, we also need to understand conscious thought and decision-making. While this includes a person’s green ideals, there are other, more tribal factors to take into account. 

We are very social creatures who comply and conform to norms, particularly those we ascribe to people like us.

“Having inner values that align with pro-environmental actions is important,” says Park, “but there are other motivations. We are very social creatures who comply and conform to norms, particularly those we ascribe to people like us – people in our in-group.”

He adds that an effective way to get people to conform to desirable norms, such as particular green behaviours, is to spell out what these are.

Making sustainable behaviours the new normal

Refill shop

“In the energy space, for instance, if you asked people if their neighbours’ energy consumption would influence their own, they would probably say ‘no – why would it?’” says Park, “but if you tell someone that nine out of 10 of their neighbours are using less energy than they are, that has consistently been shown to make people reduce their consumption.”

This works because it has a benchmark aspect to it (“I thought I was frugal, but it turns out I’m not – I’ll do something about it”) and an injunctive, value-based component (“others are doing something for the environment – maybe I should, too”).

In other words, if we think everyone else in our street is reducing or recycling their waste, human instinct compels us to fit in. So much of our life is shaped or characterised by social etiquette, expectations, compliance to social norms.

To learn that it’s a norm to conserve energy in the home, or to recycle our waste, is an influential piece of information.

“It’s why you keep your voice down in a public library, or try to respect someone’s personal space on a crowded train,” Park says. “To learn that it’s a norm to conserve energy in the home, or to recycle our waste, is an influential piece of information.”

It follows that if we all have an innate need to copy each other, green practices have to be highly visible to take advantage of this – and, with waste, that’s easier said than done. 

“Local authorities can just communicate the message that ‘most people are recycling’, but it’s more effective if those green behaviours are observable to other people,” says Park.

“There’s good evidence to show that solar panels are contagious: if a couple of houses in a street have them, neighbouring properties are more likely to follow suit. It’s why electric vehicle number plates are green: to make them visible and to influence. If you see enough of them, you’re more likely to want to switch yourself.”

Changing behaviours, reducing waste

Household recycling

Waste practices are more difficult to make visible, however. Local authorities have experimented with stickers on recycling bins, highlighting that they contain contaminated waste, and one study found that having see-through household recycling bins for kerbside collections made people more careful about what they put in them. 

Changing sustainable behaviours means getting data to understand specific actions and influence specific changes. However, while people should always be encouraged to recycle better, Park is concerned that such a specific message can tap into another human behaviour that actually stops them acting sustainably: a psychological rationalisation called moral licensing.  

“People say ‘I’m doing my bit; I’m recycling’, and then excuse themselves from the more difficult, less-rewarding green behaviours that can bring far greater benefit to the environment,” he says. 

“Recycling is an easy green behaviour to an extent – which is why most people do it only to an extent. Few recycle as well as they should, because doing it perfectly is actually quite difficult: rinsing that yoghurt pot every time; always checking the label to see if this is the right type of plastic. So, in that sense, the low-hanging fruit is already gone. 

People say ‘I’m doing my bit; I’m recycling’, and then excuse themselves from the more difficult, less-rewarding green behaviours.

“To get the fruit on the higher branches, we need to remove the frictions: have a standardised labelling system, or remove the need to separate or clean packaging. The behavioural challenges now are to get everyone up to the next level and switch them on to green behaviours that have even greater impact.”

Guiding people to the right decision can involve a carrot or stick – or a combination of the two. Park says changing behaviour means doing your homework by amassing situation-specific data and understanding the barriers that discourage particular behaviour motivations – in a given setting with a given audience in a given context.

“Maybe the desired behaviour is too difficult, so you make it easier, or maybe it’s easy, but there’s no motivation. Solutions need to fit with the barriers you are trying to overcome.”

Achieve that and you could improve recycling behaviours – like magic.

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