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A More Useful Approach to Saving the Planet

By Tara McKenna

I read a news article recently about a group letting air out of SUV tires to promote their environmental message about climate change. Apparently they weren’t slashing tires, but simply letting air out to cause an inconvenience to SUV owners.

It wasn’t worth my time to finish the article. I was bummed about the fact that people are doing this and that – shockingly – they believe they can make a difference in the name of climate change using this tactic.

PR Nightmare

This is a massive public relations nightmare for promoting environmentalism and trying to impact legislative change. You can’t force people to change their behaviours (unless, of course, you live under a dictatorship, but these actions are happening in democratic societies).

Unfortunately, it’s actions like these that do not inspire the masses to become environmentalists. Instead, this approach increases the likelihood that people will view the environmental movement as extreme, unwelcoming, and undesirable.

Letting air out of tires is a step back for the environmental movement, not a step forward.

Sure, their actions are making the news and the hassle will annoy people, but it’s not a persuasive approach; it’s not appetizing, appealing, intriguing, inviting, or useful. It’s a big waste of time and energy.

Enter Marketing 101

And perhaps Psychology and Sociology 101.

A more effective approach to inspire behavioural change is to frame behaviours in the context of social norms. Why? Because people want to fit in with their peers – it’s a survival thing.

Have you ever been to a hotel where there’s a sign in the bathroom asking that you do the environment a favour by reusing your towels to save water? Well, it turns out that simply hoping to bring out the inner environmentalist in hotel guests by making the basic request is not overly successful.

What’s more effective at getting people to reuse their towels at hotels? Drawing on social norms. This approach was tested by behavioural scientists Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini, and Vladas Griskevicius, who created two versions of the towel re-use signs for guests to test the theory. These are the signs they came up with:

One sign used this language:

“HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”

The other sign used this language:

“JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”

The second sign resulted in a significant increase in the reuse of towels compared to the generic one above it. This demonstrates that people aspire to follow social norms.

Caution is required, however. The wording in the second sign could backfire for the same reason. If you demonstrate that some people didn’t reuse the towels (in this case they’re inadvertently saying that 25% of people didn’t reuse their towels), some people might fall in line with that social norm instead.

Learn More, Do Better

The point is that the demonstration of social norms can guide the behaviour change we want to see in the world.

This is a much more palatable approach that’s backed by research. Which is also to say, ecoterrorism isn’t it. Don’t waste your time deflating tires or giving people a hard time about their lifestyle choices.

Want to have a better impact on the world? Brush up on your marketing, psychology, and sociology studies. Read, learn, and put them into action!


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