Making it easy to do the right thing

Published Tuesday, February 2, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Picture two typical businesses.  They’re similar to each other, with a dozen people busy at their workstations.  But there’s one key difference.

In the first, the recycle bin is a single big blue dumpster located in a cold, echoey stairwell thirty steps from where everyone’s working.

In the second, every workstation has its own small recycling bin, and there’s just one centrally-located trash can shared by all.

It doesn’t take a genius to know which business will do better at recycling its waste paper.  It’s a perfect example of the power of social marketing to change behaviours.

Field of study

Social marketing has nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.  It’s a field of study that uses principles of conventional marketing to encourage behavioural change for greater social good.  

Here’s a simpler way to define it.  We humans are like rivers, in that we take the path of least resistance.  Our instinct is to look after our own interests first.  We’re forgetful or easily distracted.  We like having fun.  Social marketing simply means taking those realities of human nature into account when planning ways to change our behaviours for the better.  If you want people to do something, make it the easiest thing to do; provide timely reminders; and make it fun.

Social marketing is a powerful tool when planning sustainability initiatives.

Make it easy

Want to improve recycling in your workplace?  First analyze the barriers that are preventing people from recycling.  For example, the bin’s too far away; it’s always overflowing so there’s paper everywhere; the lid’s too heavy; it’s easier to just toss everything in the nearby trashcan.  

Then remove those barriers: place a small recycling bin at every desk; have cleaning staff empty those bins as part of their regular duties; get rid of trash cans at every workstation (which some workplaces have done).

(Interestingly, those popular residential green trash dollies are the nemesis of recycling because they make it far too easy to just throw everything in the trash.)

Want to improve ridership on public transit?  Consider the barriers: riders hate waiting for the bus, especially when it’s cold, and they may feel time spent onboard is unproductive.  Then remove those barriers: install bus shelters; use smartphone technology to alert riders when their bus is approaching; install free WiFi to turn travel time into productive time.

Want to encourage carpooling at work?  Put up a local map, invite colleagues to pin where they live and then have someone coordinate ride matching.  Provide an incentive by giving carpoolers the best parking spots.

Want to encourage bicycling to work?  Provide a bikerack, a shower and a changing room.

Remind and communicate

Sometimes people don’t know what recycling goes where.  The solution?  Make sure recycling bins are clearly labeled so everyone can see what goes where.  Use pictures and color coded containers.  (Ideally, the color blue should be reserved exclusively for recycling containers, but many commercial plastic barrels – which are blue in color – see a second life as trash barrels.  No wonder people get confused.) 

Want people to turn off lights?  Put reminder stickers by the switches.

Want people to participate in an energy savings initiative?  Provide regular progress reports (like the United Way fundraising ‘thermometers’), and offer prizes for participation.

Want more people to recycle?  Make sure the recycling symbol is clearly visible on all recyclable materials.

Make it fun

Want to get people to take the stairs instead of the escalator?  Make each step a giant piano note so that people ‘play’ the piano as they walk up the stairs.  It works – check out for proof.

The bottom line?  Improving sustainability is often about changing habits, and changing habits can be tough.  But it’s much easier when we account for human nature.  When the right thing to do becomes the easiest thing to do; when it’s fun; and when we provide lots of reminders, everyone will do the right thing.