I’ve just got a few thoughts to share with you today about whether the very visual impact of a neighbour doing some good for the environment is enough to encourage others to do the same. It is quite often the case that neighbours compete for the prestige of having the most beautiful garden or the most elaborate water features but just how does this translate into being the most green?
I would, for instance, be interested to know the spread of solar panel installations across the country. Do they cluster around certain roads or certain areas where one household originally installed them which led their neighbours to follow suit? If so, are the neighbours trying to save face or is it as simple as bringing solar to their attention by making it visible day in and day out? Or maybe it’s the fact that the neighbours can feel safe in giving their cash to a trustworthy installer who they have seen perform work nearby.
If you have ever read Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell, you will know how the action of individuals and small groups can spill over into a wider trend. Even if you haven’t read it, you will know first hand how things such as dropping litter can spread; so by keeping an area free from litter you can discourage people from subsequent littering.
How Can We Reach A Tipping Point?
I would propose that the same effect can happen with green living, but we almost certainly haven’t reached a tipping point in many aspects – the only one that we’ve maybe reached is that of household recycling but even then many still experience recycling apathy and don’t recycle everything they could.
The problem might be that living a sustainable life is not always visible to the wider community; how would you, for example, know if someone composts all their food waste and recycles to the very limits of what is possible?
Without knowing this, the whole concept of keeping up with the Joneses falls flat. How can you keep up with someone if you don’t know what they are doing?
So the answer seems simple: make green living more noticeable to the residents of a community and they should, in some way, act more responsibly themselves.
This works along the lines of social proof, a psychological phenomenon where people take clues from what others around them are doing to decide on what the correct and proper action to take is in any given situation.
Making Sustainability Visible
Putting sustainable living in front of peoples’ eyes is not a job for one person or group but a job for all of a community’s stakeholders whether it is local governments, energy companies, businesses or residents. So just how might each of these groups do their bit to highlight the value that comes from leading a low impact life?
One thing local councils might do is to make their refuse collections bins see-through so that neighbours can easily determine how much waste a household is producing. This might shame some people into generating less rubbish and if recycling containers were also transparent, the same might be true about encouraging their use.
Another idea, although fairly hard to implement, would be to pit streets against each other by measuring how much waste they send to landfill compared to how much they recycle. Break this down per household and you can generate a competitive angle on events whereby the best street and the most improved street, with regards to recycling percentage, are rewarded with a makeover or some other prize. If there was an online leaderboard then residents could see how well they compare to nearby streets.
As clichéd as it sounds, local governments are also best placed to help people reconnect with nature, particularly in city surroundings where concrete, steel and glass rule. A more aware public would in theory use their own initiative to maintain and protect green spaces and this would permeate through to their home lives too and make them think more carefully about the choices they make.
Governments should adopt an opt-out method of communication rather than an opt-in one. By this I mean that rather than requiring a person to use their initiative to seek out information on green living, every household should be sent information unless they specifically ask not to receive it. This makes things highly visible by putting the message directly in front of people in their homes where they can make many of the biggest changes. Yes there will be an environmental cost in terms of paper, printing and delivering such information but the benefits could far outweigh this.
Out on the streets is one area where local governments can do more. Around my area we have some bins which have recycling one side and landfill on the other but this is not the case across all of London. Because people are creatures of habit and convenience, they are not going to hang onto that plastic drinks bottle for recycling if they come across a regular bin first. Councils have an opportunity to make recycling facilities far more widespread and visible – make the recycling bins bright green and have them alongside every regular bin to give people that option – most will do the right thing.
Virtually every household in the country is supplied by one of the various energy companies and they know our usage down to the very last KWh so they are in a great position to make energy more visible.
One idea would be to add an extra section to customers’ bills showing how their energy use compares to that of their neighbours. Maybe not their direct neighbours but of their street in general – this way they might realise if they are being particularly inefficient and look for ways to improve. The danger is that those who are better than the average might relax their energy saving efforts slightly as they allow themselves to conform to the norm.
Taking this one step further, if energy companies installed smart meters in every home that can take and transmit readings on a daily or even hourly basis then they could alert customers who are using far above the area average at any point in time. A simple text could be enough to make people aware of any excessive energy usage that they have and respond by turning things off or down. If smart meters were accompanied by energy monitors in the home then these could be used to transmit this information.
Energy companies might also point out just how many people down a particular street are signed up to a green energy tariff – again the theory of social proof and social norms might persuade others that being on a green energy tariff is the right thing to do.
Businesses & Organisations
People interact with multiple businesses and other organisations on a daily basis whether they are food shopping, getting a haircut or visiting a museum and throughout these interactions there are subtle cues as to what the social norm is, and these cues can be manipulated to encourage green behaviour.
One great example was put forward by Robert Cialdini who did an experiment as to what message would be most effective in getting people to reuse towels during a hotel stay. The message with the highest rate of reuse was the one that demonstrated social proof as it informed guests how their fellow hotel patrons acted:
“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 to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”
One business that could put this idea to good use would be supermarkets. Plastic bags are still widely given out free (apart from in Wales) but if supermarkets had messages at the checkout telling people that 50% of customers used their own bag, then maybe others would be more inclined to use a bag for life next time they shop.
No business is too small to implement messages of social proof; a local takeaway, for example, might be able to improve the recycling rates for their pizza boxes while giving customers ideas on how they might re-use those plastic containers that contain Chinese food.
Community Action Groups
I have spoken before about the importance of green community action groups but I’d just like to reiterate the role that they can play in making green living more visible. Being made up of members of society, a message that comes from an action group may well prove more powerful than anything governments or businesses can come up with.
The whole notion of social proof exists in abundance with action groups and the bigger they become, the more their actions become a social norm rather than the exception.
Besides joining a local community group, individuals have their own role to play in improving the visibility of sustainable living and like all the other parties listed here it does require some degree of action.
Something as small as picking up a bit of litter in the street and putting it in the next bin you see can sway the actions of other people but how many people simply ignore rubbish? (a lot if you believe this viral video)
Similarly, putting bird feeders up in your front garden during winter can encourage birds into an area and when passers by see this, they may too put food out for birds in one way or another which helps local populations survive, especially during cold periods.
Using a strong bag for life may seem like a simple thing but even this, on a large enough scale, will help shift the social norm away from single use carrier bags (whose use has been on the rise again).
If you really want to push the boat out, why not get a microgeneration installation for your home whether that be solar, wind, ground source heat pump or something else. You’ll attract the attention of neighbours who, as I theorised earlier, might then follow you down the path to renewable energy.
What other things can you think of that governments, energy companies, businesses and individuals can do to make sustainable living the norm in society? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.
I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint.
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