Social Pressure Encourages Consumers To Conserve

Companies can successfully market environmental programs by describing how others in a similar situation participate—and how doing so helps the environment.

Firms, such as hotels, gain considerable economic benefits by adopting environmental programs. For example, by encouraging guests to reuse towels, hotels receive direct savings on costs including labour, water, energy and detergent. Such environmental programs reduce costs through efficiency.

So what factors motivate consumers to participate in environmental programs? How can firms maximize participation?

Research shows using social norms, which describe how most people behave in a situation, are an effective way to drive actions. A social norm may be that seven out of 10 people choose one car brand over another. A 2008 study by Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini, and Vladas Griskeviciusdescribes what norms are most effective to get consumers to participate in environmental programs.

When customers know others are raising the bar, they’ll participate too.

Companies can successfully market environmental programs by describing how others in a similar situation participate—and how doing so helps the environment. Consumers are most likely to participate in an environmental conservation program when told both that:

  • participation helps the environment and

  • other people in their situation participate.

Half of hotel guests reuse at least one towel when told others in the same hotel do so and when told how it helps the environment. Only 37 per cent participate when a sign states only that reusing towels helps the environment.

Let customers know precisely how they can make an impact.

  • Describe how individuals in a similar situation take part in programs. For example, encourage guests to “join X% of guests who stayed in their hotel and helped save the environment.” This creates a norm that makes others more likely to participate. It is more effective than saying fellow citizens participate, or what percentage are men or women.

  • Describe how participating will help the environment. For example, “If most of this hotel’s guests participate in our resource savings program, it would save the environment 72,000 gallons of water and prevent 480 gallons of detergent from being released into the environment this year alone.”

  • Train staff to understand and adopt the environmental program. Give specific directions on what actions to take because programs may fail if staff do not properly understand their role.

How do social identity norms influence customer behaviour?

In this study, two field experiments examined the effectiveness of signs on washroom towel racks requesting hotel guests’ participation in an environmental program. One experiment measured whether signs that had descriptive norms were more effective than those that did not, while the other measured how the types of guests described as participating influenced responses. The experiment was conducted in a mid-sized, mid-priced, national U.S hotel chain. A chi square test was used to analyze data.

Researchers know that norms guide behaviours. Past research shows that people tend to follow norms consistent with their social identity, like age, gender and values. Yet this research implies that in certain cases norms can be influenced more by situations than by identity.

In this study, personally irrelevant norms (i.e. guests in a particular hotel) led to more participation than relevant social identity norms. Future research can explore what drives situational norms to influence behaviour and when identity norms may be more effective.

Goldstein, Noah, Cialdini, Robert, & Griskevicius, Vladas. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3): 472-482.

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