Compete with Caution: The Limits of Greening Behavior with Competitions

green competition

When an organisation decides to go green, the first question is the simplest: How do we do it?

Often, one of the first answers to come to mind is to host a competition. In fact, do a web search for “going green”, and you’ll come up with all sorts of suggestions about competitions to hold: electronics recycling, dead battery drives, plastic bag collection, and more.

This is quite understandable: competitions can be flashy, are easy to publicise, and bestow the all-important gift of bragging rights on the winner. But are they the best way to change behaviour?

The answer, in short: it depends on what you’re looking for. If you need something big that can break old habits and will be highly visible, then competitions are a great tool. However, if you want lasting behaviour change, there are better alternatives. Why is this?

Competitions can change behaviour – but this change is often very short-lived1. This is because competitions are often self-contained events, where the point of the competition is to compete rather than to promote another goal, like going green. Another limiting factor is that the goal of a competition is usually to earn some sort of prize – not permanently change behaviour. Even if people have to change their behaviour in the short-term to win the competition, it’s been shown that participating in a competition does little to change behaviour in the long term.

I consulted with one company who had staged a competition to get their employees to shut down their computers at the end of the day. The prize? An extra two days paid time off for the department that did the best job. As you might imagine, the competition was a rousing success – until it was over. Soon after, employees went back to their power-wasteful habits. Brief interviews with the employees showed the reason: many were being green in the hopes of an extended holiday, not because of any real want to go green.

So what happened? Academic psychologists have discovered that extrinsic (or outside) forces are less motivating in the long run than intrinsic (self-derived) forces2. In fact, having extrinsic forces as a motivator can even backfire, causing a dependency on the reward to get the desired behaviour.

Think about training a dog to do a trick: giving them a treat every time they roll over teaches them to expect a treat for doing what you want them to. In the same vein, competitions can drive people to expect ‘treats’ for doing the right thing. Instead of treating people like animals, it’s a much better strategy to help them find self-driven reasons to go green – a topic we will talk about in a future post.

Knowing the limits of competitions, what are they good for?

A well-done competition can definitely have an impact. First, they can provide a bit of a ‘shock’ to an organisation. If non-green habits are ingrained in a group, it can be hard to bring attention to what needs to change – competitions can help highlight when and how to change behaviour. RecycleMania ( is a great example of a competition that is visible and gets people motivated.

Second, they are a great tool to build camaraderie. If you have a group of relatively new people and want them to unite, competitions can help do this. Finally, competitions are a great way to produce bursts of short-term behaviour change – but they usually require some sort of incentive, as noted above.

Anyone looking to get people to go green should know that competitions are only one of many tools that can be used to change behaviour, and like any tool, should be used in the right situation.


  1. When you are hoping for a long-term change in green behaviour
  2. When you are trying to encourage people to find internal reasons to go green
  3. When you have limited resources to get people to go green


  1. To help ‘shake things up’
  2. To help encourage groups cohesion
  3. To stimulate short-term boosts in green behaviour


1. Mackenzie-Mohr, D. M. (2011). Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. Vancouver: New Society Publishers.

2. Sansone, C. & Harackiewicz, J.M. (eds) (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance. New York: Academic Press.

IanTingen (1 Posts)

Ian Tingen is a social scientist and author based in southern California, U.S.A.

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