Keeping Up With The Green Joneses

making green living visible

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?

Local Government

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.

Energy Companies

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.

Steve (152 Posts)

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. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

5 Responses to “Keeping Up With The Green Joneses”

  1. Jan Sephens
    April 16, 2012 at 1:12 PM

    Hey Steve, just found your blog and I have to say: That’s exactly my kind of thinking in this article.
    Living green and doing everything you can in terms of recycling, renewable energies and all these stuff is a great beginning, but imagine how much potential there is when you can get more and more people on the boat!

    However, as much as I like your ideas, Some of them won’t work (can just talk of Germany). People are very angry about their privacy over here and transparent recycling bins would be an absolute “No Go” for 99% of the society.
    Why should energy companies encourage customers to use less electricity or to save on gas and water? I mean they make money with our consumption.

    I hope not to sound rude or something because I really like your general idea!
    Just two thoughts were I even don’t know if they apply to other countries…

    Here are my attempts:

    What encourages everyone is to save money. We need more incentives from the governments and people really need to see the rewards in their wallet. Solar power is quite popular in germany in the last years. More and more people install solar systems on their roofs and generate renewable electricity. You know what everybody talks about? The great government incentives. Even people who have absolutely no motivation in living green are installing solar panels here!

    Green Living needs to be trendy!
    We all know how strong trends can be and I can see some steps in the right direction for a green lifestyle here. I mean if we can reach a point where it is simply cool to power your home by renewable energies or where people are really respected when they lower their waste output, we are on the right way.

    Keep up the great work, I’ll definitely come back to check your blog!

    • Steve
      April 16, 2012 at 2:01 PM

      Hi Jan,

      Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you like the article. I’m always keen to hear other peoples’ points of view and you are probably right about the transparent recycling bins and privacy – personally I could care less if people see what is in my rubbish but it’s not like that for everyone.

      As for energy companies trying to reduce our consumption, it is currently a legal obligation in the UK for energy suppliers with more than 250,000 customers to make savings on the amount of CO2 emitted by their customers:

      Furthermore, the European Commission hope to introduce legislation which would make energy suppliers across Europe obliged to save 1.5% annually on their sales (in volume terms):

      I agree that money often has a big impact on the uptake of green technologies and we have similar government incentives here in the UK (for now at least). More incentives would help but if you look at the psychology of it all, it shows that people are much more likely to act if they want to avoid a loss than to make a gain so it has to be part carrot and part stick when coming up with energy saving policies.

    • Nic
      March 6, 2014 at 2:28 AM

      Great article Steve.
      Love your ideas Jan!

      I would add one more suggestion: switching to a greener, more sustainable lifestyle should be made EASIER so that it becomes the norm, the default. E.g. installing renewable energy systems in your home in the UK is such a bother. It’s so hard to get reliable information about the different providers & products to know a)what really works; b)how it compares to others in the market; c)payback timescales etc. There is no central database where we can fairly compare ‘green’ products & services before making the decision to invest in these long term, often rather expensive systems. It’s hard to know who to trust & many of the assumed savings are based on a ‘typical household’ but this is either not clearly defined, or irrelevant if you don’t consider yourself typical.

  2. Steve
    January 25, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    My 2 cents worth.

    Saving CO2 is the same as saving money, or should be. If you have the time could you make a table showing what you could save by turning your heating down 1, 2 or 3°C – and/or running the heating 30, 60 and 90 minutes less per day.

    People also seem to argue that you waste money by turning your heating off if you go out for the day. It would be nice to have the data to refute this argument. Similarly with energy saving bulbs – people seem to believe there is a high start up cost so you should leave them on rather than turning them off for short periods when not needed – not true surely?

    A page refuting these arguments if possible would be good.

    • January 25, 2013 at 10:41 AM

      I’d love to know why people think you waste money by turning your heating off?! Surely this is an obvious falsity? Heating off = less gas burned or electricity used = lower bills? Also, LED bulbs can be turned on and off 100,000 times without blowing (so claims the manufacturers) which is one reason why everyone should switch to them. I wouldn’t buy the traditional energy saving bulbs if I were you, they contain quite a bit of mercury most of the time I think and even they won’t a) save as much energy/money and b) last as long as LED bulbs.

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