Science - May 16, 2013

How to sell sustainability

Science Cafe about an economy without waste.
Money not always effective in changing behaviour.

A public pat on the back turns out to be the best way of encouraging sustainable behaviour.
It is not so difficult to think up sustainable alternatives to everyday processes. The techno­logy is not the problem, thinks social psychologist Michel Hand­graaf (Economics of Households and Consumers). Getting people to choose the sustainable option is the difficult part. Handgraaf will be putting that proposition during the Science Cafe next Thursday in Loburg. The theme for the evening is what is known as the circular economy. Louise Vet (Netherlands Institute of Ecology director) will be advocating a radical new way of dealing with raw materials. The key is reusing materials and having closed cycles.
Handgraaf knows from studies in his own field how difficult it is to influence human behaviour. Rewards help, as all parents know. But what is the best reward? Does money work better than a (publicized) pat on the back, for instance? Not always, as shown by a study of his published recently in Ecological Economics. Ecofys employees were 'held to account' for their computer's energy consumption. A public pat on the back for energy-efficient behaviour turned out to be by far the most effective measure. A monetary reward actually sometimes had an adverse effect: people were so disgusted they used more energy rather than less.
Grants do not always persuade people to make the switch. 'My favourite example is always the cyclist who stands at the roadside with a flat tyre,' says Handgraaf. 'If the cyclist asks you for help, it's highly likely you will help him. But if he says "I'll give you one euro" you won't do it. Then you'll say "Just one euro? No way!" The focus has shifted from doing something good for someone else to a financial transaction. People being offered one euro as compensation for dirty hands will say no. Efficient behaviours often only result in small financial gains.' In contrast, the grants for solar panels have been extremely successful, says Handgraaf, because the returns were sufficiently high.
The appropriate approach depends on the target group. Handgraaf says that is the real challenge. 'The real question is not whether it is technologically possible. Far more thought needs to go into how to persuade people to make the right choice.' 

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