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In the Loop

4 tips for changing consumer behavior

Rethinking supply chains and infrastructure to create a circular economy is critical, but these structures and innovations will work only if consumers embrace the new models.

Image depicting the thought process behind behavior

When I cover solutions to the plastic waste crisis, I typically focus on infrastructure development and bringing recycling systems to scale, standardizing materials, inventing new ones and designing out unnecessary single-use items, and rethinking business models and supply chains.

But once these structures are in place, they only work if consumers embrace new models and ensure that materials move through the system as planned. Otherwise, the entire system breaks down.

And if you thought it was hard getting your colleagues to recycle rigid plastic or compost paper towels, or to stop wishcycling — that whatever they throw into the bin will, in fact, be recycled — think about the complexity of changing consumer behavior across a city, country or beyond. 

During a recent webcast, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Natalie Hallinger, a behavioral scientist and behavior change adviser working to translate research on human motivation into real-world behavior change strategies. 

Here are four tips Hallinger recommends for designing large-scale interventions: 

  1. Make it relatable: "People often think they need to force people to do something they don’t want to do," Hallinger shared. But brute force is rarely the path of least resistance. "The easier route is to find a way to relate to them. What’s an intersection of a goal they already want that aligns with your goal?" For example, if your generic environmental appeal to an individual doesn’t resonate, perhaps an individual will relate more with a personal desire to visit a clean beach in the summer. 
  2. Make it desirable: Culture and social norms are strong drivers of consumer behavior. "The most desirable thing for humans is to fit in," Hallinger explained. "If you design interventions that create community norms of waste reduction behavior, reusing and repairing, then everyone wants to be doing the same thing. You don’t want to stand out. You do it because of your desire to be part of the community."
  3. Make it contextual: Behavior change interventions must be relevant and salient. Hallinger explained that if you’re engaging employees in a work context about actions they can take at home, it likely will go in one ear and out the other. Focus on actions that people can implement immediately. 
  4. Make it easy: The "right" choice from a sustainability perspective should also be the easy choice. "If you create the infrastructure and design built environments that make the behavior you want the default, then you have behavior without even needing to persuade the person." To eliminate the guesswork that consumers face at the bin, Hallinger suggested that single-stream recycling with back-of-house sorting would design out confusion and contamination and lead to higher recycling rates in certain contexts. 

I invite you to listen to the entire webcast here, which includes additional insights on behavior change from Jacob Duer, president and CEO of Alliance to End Plastic Waste; Jeff Kirschner, founder and CEO of Litterati; and John Warner, distinguished research fellow at Zymergen. 

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