Organizations across the globe are becoming increasingly focused on delivering sustainable products and services to their customer base as a way to limit their environmental footprint and to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Though these are good policies, truly sustainable business is not simply an external matter, in the sense of producing and delivering responsibly produced offerings to markets. It is also very much an internal matter, in the sense of encouraging sustainable behaviour within the organization.
While many businesses today are well aware of this fact, and have put in a great deal of effort and care into developing more conscious work processes, there is still much to be done to ensure that these procedures are actually followed by employees on an everyday basis.
This starts with acknowledging that just because employees have the knowledge, motivation or skill to act consciously, this is no guarantee that they actually will. It is not necessarily the will to make environmentally sound decisions that is lacking; think about your own motivation to behave sustainably in your private life and then think about how many times a day your actual behaviour contradicts that motivation. What is lacking in these situations is the right choice architecture, which makes sustainable behaviour easy.
Let me give a couple of practical examples, the first looking at how we can alter eating habits and reduce food waste.
Each year, millions of pounds of food are wasted in cafeterias around the world, with plate waste accounting for a significant part. Plate waste is typically a consequence of people overestimating their needs when taking food from the buffet. But why do people consistently make such overestimations? If they experience ending up with excess food on their plates each day, why don’t they simply put less food on their plate the next day? The answer is that we are being influenced by at least two different cognitive biases in that situation, which inhibit our ability to behave rationally. The first is that people are inherently bad at forecasting their needs when affected by an emotional state, such as hunger. Whether at the supermarket or at the buffet, this means that we go for more than we need when we are hungry. It has even been shown that hunger can cause people to buy more non-food items when hungry than when not. The second bias occurs when we evaluate the amount of food we think we need by relating it to reference points in our surroundings. This means that things like the size of plates and serving utensils used at buffets actually have a pretty big effect on how much food we end up bringing back to our table.
We worked with this insight a couple of years back when we were challenged to help reduce food waste in the cafeteria of a national high school. By simply working with the size of their plates, we were able to reduce the amount of food being wasted by 19 percent. In cases like these, making those small changes to people’s environment can have a big, if not much bigger, effect than simply educating people on the right type of behaviour.
The second example has to do with printer behaviour. The average American worker uses upwards of 10,000 sheets of printing paper each year. Think about that number for a second. That is equivalent to over 27 pages per worker per day, without adjusting for weekends and holidays. For some businesses, printing may be a necessary part of doing business, but for others it may simply be a convenient option that the organization should attempt to limit, for economic and environmental reasons. The traditional approach would likely be to inform employees of the economic and environmental effects of printing in the hopes that this would motivate workers to use the printers less often. This has shown, time and time again, not to be enough. We need to think about how we can redesign people’s environment in order to help them on their way. This was what Rutgers University experimented with when they changed the default setting on their printers from one-sided to double-sided printing. Following that minor intervention, the amount of printing paper used over the next four years dropped by 44 percent, equivalent to over 55 million sheets of paper.
These examples demonstrate how small changes in everyday choice architecture can have a big impact towards reaching sustainability goals. But as simple as it may seem, activating sustainable ambitions through choice architecture, whether inside or outside the organization, is a systematic process that requires a diverse skillset. It takes research competencies to properly point out the relevant behavioural touch points, design skills to develop good prototypes, and methodological awareness to create experimental setups that allows you to evaluate those prototypes in a sensible manner. Therefore, a good first step before delving into the world of behavioural design is making sure that one has these resources available.
Once that is in place, you can begin to make life easy for people by creating choice architecture that supports and facilitates their ambitions to live and behave better, and in the process create efficient, sustainable and more enjoyable societies.