By Catherine Germier-Hamel
This article was published in the Summer 2015 edition of ECCK Connect, the Quarterly Magazine of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea (ECCK)
In reality, who cares about the environment? All things considered, the safest answer to this tricky question seems to be “it depends”. In other words, it’s all a matter of attitude, and choice.
While saving the planet has never been a number one preoccupation for most human beings, global surveys show that a majority of consumers around the world are getting increasingly aware and concerned over environmental issues. However, findings also reveal that many people appear to have difficulties to opt for greener consumption habits, and eco-friendly attitudes have hardly translated into pro-environmental behaviors.
The grass is not always greener on the other side
Since 2008, National Geographic and research consultancy GlobeScan have implemented the Greendex, a worldwide tracking survey on sustainable consumer behavior. According to the Greendex 2014 - Consumer Choice and the Environment, which surveyed 18,000 consumers across 18 countries, the highest ranked consumers are from the “emerging economies” of India, followed by China and South Korea. Overall results indicate that although environmentally-conscious consumption has improved in almost all countries tracked since the inception of the Greendex, the pace of change has been deceptively slow.
Interestingly, consumers from China, India and South Korea are also topping the 2014 Aspirational Consumer Index produced by GlobeScan and BBMG, which has identified more than two billion consumers globally, the Aspirationals, defined by their intense love of shopping, desire for responsible consumption and their trust in global brands to act in the best interest of society. Eric Whan, Sustainability Director at GlobeScan, says that “by engaging Aspirational consumers, brands can further the shift toward more sustainable consumption and influence behavior change at scale.”
While many global consumer surveys usually fail to capture the subtleties and complexities of human ecology, it seems indispensable to analyze their results in the light of recent findings in the field of social and behavioral sciences. The 2014 Greendex may evoke positive reinforcement and peer pressure as potential drivers for positive behavioral change but it does not clearly explain this observation. Moreover, it would have been worthwhile to mention that strongly collectivist cultures, such as in China and South Korea, and to some extent India, may provide a favorable ground for the propagation of new social norms. They may therefore be more likely to embrace massive changes in attitudes and behaviors.
As far as attitudes and beliefs are concerned, the 2014 Greendex report heavily insists on increasing concerns, and somewhat guilt, but does not make any mention of “greenwashing” (disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image), whereas this was perceived as one of the biggest obstacles to further behavioral improvement by the 2010 Greendex, together with governments and industries failing to take action. We may suppose that this issue has become less hot, as other studies show a relative decrease of greenwashing practices over the last years, as it has become increasingly harder for companies to mislead their consumers.
Towel and linen reuse: when the tree hides the forest
The term “greenwashing” (a combination of "green" and "whitewash") was coined in 1986 by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in his essay criticizing the hotel industry for encouraging their guests to reuse their towels allegedly to save the planet, whereas this practice is mostly aimed at saving costs.
It is safe to say that most people do not wash their towels every day when they are at home, and they usually do not see why they should give up this “privilege”, having long been accustomed to this practice as hotel guests. Some experiments have therefore been conducted to increase the guest’s participation in towel and linen reuse programs, mostly focusing on the wording of placards placed in the rooms.
First, it appears that the majority of guests tend to feel the least concerned when hotels urged them to save mother earth or help save the environment. They also consider that hotels should mind their own business, which includes minimizing the environmental impact of their services and products. Many studies have stressed that many consumers assume that governments and companies should take the lead when it comes to protecting natural resources.
Some US studies have also showed that guests are more likely to engage in towel and linen reuse programs when placards harness the power of social norms and refer to what others guests do (“almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once.”). Their participation is even higher when the message specifies a specific room number. It has also been found that reminding guests of their existing green deeds tend to motivate them to adopt even more eco-friendly behaviors, even in the absence of any incentive. Another research suggests that guests are more ready to change their behavior if they voluntarily commit to changing rather than being told what to do.
Having said that, hotel booking site Agoda.com announced last year the results of its Global Earth Day Hotel Online Survey (57.000 customers), ranking towel and linen reuse as the least popular environmentally-friendly hotel practice, with only 23% of the total votes.
In some way, towel and linen reuse programs have become emblematic of the permanent debate opposing companies and consumers over environmental responsibilities, and the difficulties to reach a consensus on shared responsibilities and costs. Through the years, they have evolved to reflect and to nurture new trends and finding in the field of Customer Relationship Management, Behavioral Economics, Social Marketing, Corporate Social Responsibility, etc., and guest are now lured with vouchers and tree planting promises. But does it really matter for the environment?
With the advent of smart technologies and big data, we can imagine that programs may be individualized in the future according to each hotel guest’s profile and personal motivations. Or the hotel industry could also adopt new standards and just decide not to wash towels everyday as a matter of principle. Or finally, green technologies will allow all hotels to wash towels everyday without any impact on costs, or comfort, or environmental. “Enjoy your stay and let us care about the environment for you.”
Let’s play the green game
If being an eco-friendly consumer was easy, enjoyable and gratifying, people would naturally opt for green behaviors. But for decades, people have been encouraged to consume more than it is needed, receiving all kinds of benefits and rewards for their excesses. Many of them have even been sponsored so that they can consume more than they can afford to. Now that they are addicted to consumerism and shopping, they receive the confusing and agonizing message that they should give up their lifestyles because it is not good for the planet. Unfortunately, not all of them are Aspirationals.
In order to make green consumption more attractive, how about promoting eco-friendly behaviors through play activities? By applying game rules, mechanics (competition, motivation and engagement), and incentives (miles, points, ranking) to solve environmental issues, “gamification” has indeed proved to be more effective than traditional approaches (awareness campaigns, taxation, punishment, technological leapfrog) to encourage sustainable choices. Since direct experiences have a stronger influence on people’s behavior than indirect ones, we could also assume that engaging in eco-friendly tourism activities may positively influence the adoption of pro-environmental behaviors. So who wants to play with me?