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Want to Nudge Consumers to Waste Less? Make It Easy, Fun and Popular

The 2011 "Wasting Water Is Weird" campaign, a collaboration between Bosch, Kohler, Lowe's and P&G, featured Rip the Drip, who thrived on making home water-wasters feel appropriately awkward | Image credit: Shelton Group

As my Green Marketing students are learning, companies large and small are reducing their carbon footprints by adopting strategies to make their operations, goods and services more environmentally sustainable. But with the world population headed towards eight billion, marketers also recognize the important role that consumers play through their usage and disposal of products. To nudge consumers towards less wasteful behavior, take some advice from social marketers — make it easy, fun and popular.

Easy Does It

Information, advice and eco tips found on the Internet make it easier than ever for consumers to attempt a sustainable lifestyle. While recycling is still a chore, clear instructions, accessible bins, curbside pickup and reverse-vending machines at the supermarket make it more convenient for consumers to dispose of newspapers and commingles responsibly and to redeem deposit bottles and cans.

What can brands do to make it easier and more convenient for consumers to reduce waste? Streamlined or redesigned packaging, concentrated formulas, and products such as recycled paper towels with customizable sizing options help. Refillable products are great, but only if the refills are economical, uniform and widely available. When was the last time you refilled a ballpoint pen instead of throwing the pen away?

Extended producer responsibility (EPR), especially for post-use disposal of goods, is not yet required throughout the U.S. But some companies are being proactive by developing better “How2Recycle” instruction labels for packages. Electronics, cell phones and printer cartridges that come with return envelopes or cartons are helpful, as are drop-offs and take-back centers at stores such as Staples and Best Buy. As an added bonus, these services help attract eco-conscious customers and enhance store loyalty.

Through its Common Threads program, Patagonia has been promoting responsible consumption and recycling of the company’s outerwear for years. Now, clothing retailers such as H&M and Marks & Spencer are making it convenient to drop off unwanted clothing and “schwop” for new duds on the same trip. Designer Eileen Fisher has closed the apparel consumption loop further by setting up Green Eileen outlets, where consumers can buy gently worn EF clothing and attend workshops where they learn to create items using leftover fabric. Perhaps other companies could try to fill the gap left by disappearing Home Economics and Shop classes, not to mention local hardware stores and repair shops, by sponsoring workshops to help consumers maintain their products.

Consumers Just Wanna Have Fun

Companies as diverse as Lush Cosmetics and Pavegen Systems are redesigning and re-imagining products and services, and bringing exciting “eco-innovations” to market that are also more fun to use. At the same time, conscious consumers are finding a new creative outlet by figuring out inventive ways to use less of everything (especially energy and water), and to repurpose items that would otherwise be discarded. WeHateToWaste.com has numerous examples of sustainable consumption ideas, from People Towels to recipes for leftovers. One of my students found a great collection of creative reuses for a variety of items on a website called Twisted Sifter.

Gamification can also nudge people towards waste-reducing behavior while they’re having fun; examples include Recyclebank and Volkswagen's Fun Theory. One game designer who believes in the power of play has created a card game (aptly named “Waste Not”) to help unleash creativity in “rethinking” uses for common objects that may otherwise end up in the trash.

Of course, it’s never too early to prepare the next generation of conscious consumers. Who can resist the sheer fun of Mr. Eco, as this super hero raps his way into our hearts with messages about recycling, water conservation, and food waste reduction. Or the recent 3-D animated movie Epic, an entertaining effort to engage kids in saving energy and protecting the climate.

Environmentally Friendly Is Trendy

As social animals, consumers naturally want to do what’s “in.” But despite the obvious environmental, economic and social benefits, sustainable consumption is still not the norm in our society. In our disposable culture, wastefulness lacks the stigma of shame embodied in the Japanese concept of Mottainai.

Surveys by the Shelton Group show that Americans do feel guilty about some behaviors (such as wasting food), and other behaviors such as littering and driving gas guzzlers are becoming less socially acceptable.

What will it take to make resource conservation more popular? Perhaps U.S. consumers will respond to a humorous campaign such as Shelton Group's "Wasting Water Is Weird," which points out the “weirdness” (not shame) of wasteful habits. Regulatory incentives (such as bans on plastic shopping bags) can help move the needle, as can school and company policies that systematize efficiency. When my college shifted the photocopy center default to two-sided copying and switched to online versions of many forms and documents, people quickly adjusted and felt good about it.

We may need some high-profile celebrities and opinion leaders to help make conservation “cool.” Everyone expects Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio to drive hybrid cars. But when Oprah promoted eco-friendly products and actions on her TV show and in her magazine, she reached millions more. Television, movies and social media play an important role in popularizing ideas, styles and behaviors. No Impact Man, Colin Beavan, set a great example by living simply and sustainably for an entire year. But what if his zero-waste experiment were the subject of a reality show starring a celebrity couple with lots of fans and Twitter followers?

As waste-reduction activities gradually become easier, more fun and more popular, conscious consumers can help spread the word in their own circles — of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers — with a creative, constructive tone, not a critical one. They can join like-minded citizen/consumers to create community, share ideas and advocate for change, in person or online (the premise behind WeHateToWaste.com).

And as more consumers adopt and enjoy environmentally responsible habits and preferences, they will all be better customers and partners for companies that have made the commitment to sustainability.


Frugal by nature and an environmentalist since the ‘60s, Fredrica Rudell teaches Consumer Behavior and Green Marketing courses at Iona College, and is very involved with sustainability activities on campus. She blogs at WeHateToWaste.com.   

[Read more about Fredrica Rudell]


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