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Can we nudge our way to sustainability?

by Sarah Hards

Last week, the Government’s latest strategy for behaviour change, “Nudge”, came under fire from the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. Nudge is a controversial topic, and this latest development raises important questions about how policy can promote sustainable lifestyles.

In a nutshell, nudge suggests that people are not rational decision-makers, but make choices largely based on habit, inertia and sub-conscious cues in their environments. This means that we can be led towards better choices through the manipulation of our surroundings and the way that options are presented to us. For example, if recycling bins were larger and general waste bins smaller, people might recycle more. They wouldn’t have to be persuaded that recycling is a good thing to do – or even think about it at all.

One existing policy that uses nudge principles involves Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) for buildings. Since 2008 these must be shown to new buyers or renters of a property, to inform them of its energy efficiency. The idea of policies like these is that no limits are imposed on individual freedom; people still choose where to live. What’s more, proponents of nudge suggest these policies should be relatively cheap to implement. It’s not surprising this approach would appeal to cost-conscious Conservatives.

But the Lords Committee found little evidence to suggest that nudging really works. They concluded that:

Instead, a whole range of measures – including some regulatory measures – will be needed to change behaviour.” 1

This has some personal resonance, as I’ve just moved to a house which has the lowest possible rating for energy-efficiency. I saw the EPC, but other needs and priorities meant I chose to take the house anyway, so the policy had no effect. In contrast, if landlords were subject to regulation requiring higher energy-efficiency, many people might enjoy warmer, cheaper and greener homes.

Nudge has also been challenged more fundamentally. In a report for the new think tank, Green House, Professor Andy Dobson argues that nudge:

fails to engage people at the level of principle. Likewise it is fundamentally anti-democratic in its determination to change behaviour without us knowing it is being changed.” 2

He suggests that what we really need is “sustainability citizenship”: active public participation in pro-environmental policy and practice. Few would disagree with that goal, but it’s ambitious. Can we nudge our policy-makers into making it happen?


3 comments to Can we nudge our way to sustainability?

  • Rebecca Nesbit

    It’s interesting that people are uncomfortable about anything that changes your behaviour subconsciously. Should there be a sign saying “warning – you only chose to use the recycling bin because I made it bigger.”? Maybe all products should have warnings that the packaging was designed to make you buy them.*

    I am very happy if I do a more sustainable action without even needing to think about it. It seems strange to me that people feel they like to have conscious control of everything. They’re kidding themselves rather…

    *warning – I put photos on this blog to make it more appealing.

  • Hayley Jones

    Even though nudging may fail to make people change their principles it seems like a logical and useful strategy for targeting those who really don’t care about sustainabilty.

    Similarly people may object to having their behaviour changed subconsciously but there are so many vocal people in the ‘the government shouldn’t tell me how to live my life’ group that a bit of subtle nudging might help!

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