A bit of un-breaking news: in the heat of the global warming and climate change debate, pun unintended, more and more companies are adopting environmentally friendly policies. Examples abound: from incorporating recycled materials in consumer products (Adidas, Nike, Patagonia, Pepsi Co, Nestle, and many others), through stopping the use of certain materials (Starbucks phasing out straws), to embracing a circular economy business model, brands are striving to become, or more cynically speaking – to show they’ve become, environmentally friendly. Consumers are following suit of course, yet tons of plastic and other potentially recyclable materials still go un-recycled every day. What’s to be done to make people more likely to recycle? 

Research has shown that social influence, interventions that break old and subsequently create new, sustainable habits, talking to people’s hearts as well as to their minds, and engaging the concept of self-identity (who I am) can all boost sustainable behavior. For an excellent framework for driving sustainable behavior have a look at this article: https://www.ama.org/2019/05/22/from-the-journal-of-marketing-shift-consumer-behavior-to-reach-sustainability-goals/

Another study, recently published in the Journal of Marketing, adds one more tool to our toolbox: making salient what’s to become of the recycled materials increases recycling.

How does this translate to real-life you ask? Well, that means being very specific about the usage of the recycled material: showing for example that a plastic bag you are about to throw away will be turned into a bottle; or that a can become part of a new bicycle; or that the paper you recycle is a component of some musical instruments. In cases in which this connection is well-established we are much more likely to recycle. How much more likely? In the studies the authors conducted the uplift in recycling behavior is between 10 and 30% points, depending on the conditions. Either way, it is a huge improvement in how much we recycle. 

Why does knowing what’s to become of the recycled materials increases our propensity to do it? The authors suggest that “…product transformation information provided in marketing materials will serve as an inspiration-evoking stimulus because it “awakens one to better possibilities” (Thrash and Elliot 2004, p. 958) regarding waste disposal, which is expected to motivate consumers to dispose of their waste in an environmentally responsible manner.” I wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to this position, although they do show the relationship statistically in their paper. I wonder for example if this effect is due to the fact that clearly communicating the end state is similar to what a good vision is for a business – it allows us to visualize what we are looking to achieve, thus making us more likely to act. At the end of the day we, people, love to know that what we do is having an immediate and tangible impact on the world. It might well be that making product transformation salient does just that – shows clearly why are we doing the recycling.

Whatever it is, if you want people to recycle more, do tell them what’s to become of the recycled materials. Now we know.

My best wishes for a great day ahead and remember – everything communicates, everything impacts.

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