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Don’t Insult Employees With Sustainability “Nudges”

The SSC Team May 19, 2016 Tags: , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Just a few years ago, everyone seemed to have a signature block pleading for the trees – “Don’t print this e-mail for our planet” or “Think before printing this email.”

And then those tree-loving messages mostly disappeared.

Marketing and behavioral research may be indicating that “nudge” marketing, or deliberately manipulating choices to change behavior, may backfire.

Nudges can be condescending If your employees need to print a report, then they need to print the report. Using an email signature line to signal to one another that individuals aren’t capable or committed enough to make green choices without constant reminders can come off as condescending and put employees on the defensive about sustainability communications.

Even when nudges “work,” they may not achieve the ultimate goal To print or not to print, that isn’t the question. When the formerly ubiquitous email signature became popular, maybe companies did see a decrease in paper use for a time. But did the nudge truly make a difference over the long term? Was there a paper use policy in place to create lasting institutional behavioral change? Were employees motivated and engaged enough to carry the behavioral change over to their home lives or their next job? That’s sustainability. Nudge marketing is a blip in the radar.

Nudges may backfire! Imagine putting up a sign in the office restrooms over the paper towel dispenser (100% post-consumer recycled paper towels, mind you) that reads: “Remember: Paper towels were trees once.”

Although you’re trying to nudge employees into using less, thus landfilling less, you may immediately find that employees not only aren’t using less paper in the restrooms, but they’re also not participating in any other office sustainability efforts. What went wrong?

Look at the bigger picture. Employees may be infuriated that the air conditioning is still set at 60 degrees and the building lights are on all night, but “you want us to walk around with wet, clammy hands all day so you can save a few dollars on paper towels?”

Just stop nudging altogether in sustainability efforts. Don’t rely on a potentially condescending, ineffective tool to alienate employees. Instead, try educating employees, involving them in the process, and using motivational tools to create lasting change.

Have you seen workplace or marketing “nudges” that backfired? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

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