‘Nudging’ for a More Sustainable Future

By Scott Young

Recent decisions by IHG, Marriott and others to eliminate ‘bathroom miniatures’ (in favour of bulk supplies) are clear evidence that the hospitality industry is embracing sustainability.  This is obviously a positive step to reduce plastic waste – and if it is communicated effectively, the vast majority of hotel guests will accept and appreciate this change (and learn to live without their free mini-shampoos!).

However, purchasing decisions like this are only one step on the larger journey towards a more sustainable future.  And by focusing solely on supplies, hotels may miss another opportunity to save both the environment and their own costs, by ‘nudging’ the day-to-day actions of hotel employees and guests.

The term Nudge comes from a landmark book (Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness) co-authored by Cass Sunstein and Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler.  Nudge launched a global revolution in behavioural science, which governments and organisations are applying to encourage positive behaviours such as retirement saving, healthier eating and cleanliness.  In fact, ‘nudge’ examples do exist in hospitality, most notably the industry’s success in encouraging hotel guests to re-use their towels.

One core idea behind Nudge is that changing people’s behaviour does not always require ‘changing their minds’ (through information, persuasion, etc.).  Instead, it can happen by simply making the desired action the easiest path for them to follow.  Therefore, the emphasis is on small interventions (i.e. Nudges) that subtly alter a person’s environment (their ‘choice architecture’) – and/or perhaps send them a timely reminder at the exact moment of decision.

Sustainability is ideal territory for Nudging, because most people don’t need to be convinced that going green is good.  In fact, many of us would like to reduce our environmental impact, but the breakdown comes between our intent and our actions (due to confusion, ingrained habits, etc.).  In this situation, we don’t need advertising campaigns to inform, scare or guilt us.  Instead, we need a bit of help to understand exactly what we should do, to reduce barriers (‘frictions’)  – and to facilitate specific actions that can make a difference.

Sustainability is also fertile ground because it is an obvious win-win-win opportunity for hotels, their guests and the planet.  Apart from the environmental benefit, there is clearly an enormous financial incentive for hotels to be eco-friendly (to save on food, materials and employee hours), while guests can equally feel better about themselves for doing the ‘right thing’ and for staying at a responsible hotel.

In fact, one of the most memorable Nudge examples – the famous fly (sticker) in the urinal – was successful because it not only gently encouraged men to take better aim, but also saved millions in cleaning expenditures at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

 So how can hotels start Nudging successfully and profitably?

1. Look for the intersection of environmental and financial impact

For many companies, this work has already been done – and the answers lie in environmental mission statements, impact reports and scorecards.  And there’s nothing wrong with starting at the biggest cost savings opportunities:  sustainability efforts are always more likely to be supported when clear financial incentives also exist.  But by the same token it is important to ‘Nudge for good’ by focusing on changes that also provide a clear benefit to guests – and leaving them the option of opting-out and maintaining their current behaviours.

To find inspiration, please visit www.nudgingforgood.com to find case studies of P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Wrigley and others that have identified and acted upon “win-win-win” situations.

2. Closely observe current behaviours – and the habits that drive them  

Often a major challenge lies in translating broad goals such as ‘less resource consumption’ into a set of specific behaviour changes to help accomplish them (“Here’s exactly what we’d like people to do differently.”)   But once the larger challenge is broken into more manageable pieces, it becomes far easier to observe, analyse and act.

Specifically, we’re looking for the ‘micro-barriers’ that get in the way of people’s desired actions, and reinforce the gap between intent and action.  These aren’t conscious objections or hard barriers, such as affordability or feasibility.  Instead, they often take the form of habits, which lead us back to familiar patterns – or perhaps confusion, which creates friction and prevents us from adopting a new behaviour.

3. Aim for quantity of interventions, rather than a single ‘big idea’

Once we confirm a set of desired behavioural changes and uncover the micro-barriers preventing them we can begin to create small interventions (nudges) to facilitate change.

Fortunately, behavioural science provides us with many different heuristics (such as social norms, reciprocity and loss aversion) that can be leveraged to influence people’s choices.  However, our efforts circle back to the cardinal principle of behavioural science: make it easy!

Typically, we find that the answer doesn’t lie in one ‘big idea’ but rather in a combination of small interventions (co-created with our clients) that work together to facilitate and reinforce new behaviour patterns.  In fact, one overarching lesson is that small changes and timely reminders can make a big difference.

In fact, the ubiquity of mobile devices opens up many possibilities for sending digital nudges, such as reminder systems (to act sustainably) or defaults (to paperless booking and receipts).   

When it comes to sustainability, the hospitality industry is clearly moving in the right direction.  But if managers want to accelerate their efforts – and truly lead their organisations toward a more sustainable future – they would be well-served to look towards the emerging field of behavioural science.  By helping their employees and guests overcome micro-barriers and adopt new habits, hotels can nudge dramatic savings, for themselves and our world.

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