Many quickly feel taught when it comes to environmentally friendly behavior. Instead, green nudging sets small incentives, there are no compulsions or prohibitions. The creative approaches are surprisingly effective.
First five polar bears can be seen on the shower head, then four, three, two, one. The message: the shorter your shower, the more polar bears are left. The engineers who developed the Swiss product were able to show in studies that people take shorter showers and save an average of 22 percent energy if they are told what they are using. The polar bears are a so-called "green nudge", a nudge or incentive to behave greener, i.e. more environmentally friendly.
"Green nudging", the concept of encouraging people to behave in a more environmentally friendly manner without major bans or new rules, is on the rise. The polar bears are intended to illustrate the consequences of climate change: Those who use a lot of energy contribute to greenhouse gases. They cause global warming, which leads to ice melt and threatens the habitat of polar bears.
The non-profit climate protection agency Energiekonsens of the federal state of Bremen helps companies with green nudging. There are now more than 20 who have tried all sorts of things. At a fish delicatessen company, employees often left the doors to the refrigeration rooms open for convenience, thus using unnecessary energy. Today, near the gates, there are large displays showing the temperature and a smiley face: if it gets too warm, a red smiley face with the corners of its mouth pulled down; when the temperature is right, a green smiley smiles down on the display. Conclusion: In a period of 25 days, the smiley display required 19 percent fewer temperature drops to cool the rooms than in the same period before.
A company specializing in design, architecture and trade fair construction has placed the means of transport with the lowest CO2 emissions at the top of its booking system for company vehicles. In addition to electric bicycles, there are e-cars, petrol and diesel vehicles. There was also an information event with an e-bike rally to try out the bikes. Since then, bookings of petrol vehicles have fallen from 26 to 19 percent, those of e-cars have risen from 37 to 41 and those of e-bikes from 36 to 40 percent.
"With green nudging, nothing is forbidden and nothing rewarded," says Bremen project manager Astrid Stehmeier. "You leave people as they are, but change the decision-making environment." Many people would like to behave in a more climate-friendly manner, but are stuck in a routine without much thought. Changing default settings is often enough. For example, the air conditioning in the office can routinely switch off at a certain time, or the dishwasher can be automatically set to an eco-wash cycle. If you want, you can change the settings.
"Nudging is a lean instrument for climate protection, there is no need to turn a big wheel," says Stehmeier. The nudging concept was coined by the American behavioral economists Richard Thaler, who received the Nobel Prize in 2017, and Cass Sunstein. They explained how people can be made to change their behavior without being forced to do so by small suggestions from companies or authorities.
Isn't that manipulation? "It's about a behavior that is beneficial to the environment and the general public," says Elisabeth Dütschke from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research. There is hardly anything to object to. One could speak of manipulation in the supermarket, where people are prompted to buy by nudges, for example by placing sweets, liquor and cigarettes where you stand in the queue and let your eyes wander. Nudges, says the psychologist, work: "We shouldn't miss the potential that lies in such incentives." However, Dütschke doubts that such nudges will turn people into environmental friends who were not before.
Concrete information is often enough as a "nudge," Stehmeier found. For example, when there are symbols stuck to garbage cans in the office that show exactly what goes where. One company has thus achieved that the proportion of correctly sorted garbage stations has increased from 46 to 71 percent.
Or in the shower with the polar bears, which also shows the water and energy consumption. The company Amphiro can also connect the shower head to a smartphone via an app. In this way, the speed at which the polar bears disappear can be adjusted. In the app, those taking a shower can track how their energy consumption is developing. The company is present on Instagram with information like this: "A warm shower for one second uses as much energy as charging a smartphone."
(This article was first published on Monday, May 16, 2022.)