Nudgespotting: Environmentalism in New Zealand

By: Jamie Kimmel

Welcome to another special edition of Nudgespotting! My last internationally-focused post examined how Thailand nudges foreign visitors to follow local norms. Heading further East, today's post explores the ways that New Zealanders use nudges to increase their already stellar environmental record.


Re-thinking Environmentalism

Many governments and organizations approach environmentalism through the idea that people need to be convinced to be environmental. While this concept makes intuitive sense (e.g. "if we tell more people about the benefits of recycling, then more people would actually do it"), it doesn't actually accord with most Western-centric evidence. That is, the great majority of people in developed nations already express some range of pro-environmental preferences.

This means that policymakers and program designers shouldn't be too surprised when awareness campaigns and appeals to benefits aren't very effective (because people tend to be broadly aware of environmental problems, and generally agree with eco-friendly practices). Snags occur when these broad preferences don't translate to pro-environmental actions--when those who mean well don't do well. 

In late December and early January I visited New Zealand, a country of staunch environmentalists. New Zealand's people consistently rank as some of the most environmentally-conscious in the world, but, since New Zealand is indeed a country of humans (and sheep), deviations happen.

But luckily the Kiwis have caught on to the nudging trend. So what are some behavioral strategies that are deployed to help its already preference-conscious populace be a bit more action-conscious?


Where Does Our Waste Go?

One area for improvement is New Zealand's recycling behavior. While their overall recycling rate is comparable to the European Union's, many people have their sights set much higher. A good friend and native New Zealander regularly lamented the inconsistent recycling behavior of Kiwis, occasionally referencing San Francisco's enviable rate.

Which brings us to our first nudge, which I spotted in Auckland:

This classic "landfill" nudge works in two ways:

  1. It catches people's limited attention through a novel visual design, as well as a re-labeling of something traditionally known as "trash" or "waste."
  2. It increases people's willpower to recycle by making the consequences of not recycling more salient.

The landfill nudge has actually spread quite far since it first appeared about five years ago. Starbucks scaled this nudge up to all of their stores in the United States around 2012, and it has been spotted in San Francisco, Lake Forest, IL, and Philadelphia, as well. I also re-designed it and then tested its effectiveness on a college campus in early 2011, to positive results.


Tidy Kiwis Do What?

Found in Monganui, this campaign started in the 1990s, riffing off of a similarly-designed US campaign, "Don't Mess with Texas" (which was also featured in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge). A Kiwi friend was able to recite the entire "Tidy Kiwis" song by heart, on request.


Disclosing Production Costs

Many products across New Zealand also tended to reference the environmental costs of production (or the lack thereof):

"Bottle & label from plants, not oil":


Creating a New Context for Choice

I also found dual-flush toilets (two choices for how much water the toilet uses - one small, one large) to be near-universal in New Zealand. This is a unique moment for behavioral science: these toilets create a context for choice where there previously was none. But there's one major problem with this design: the way these choices are structured varies heavily, and these deviations likely have an effect on use.

First, not all of the dual-flushers show which button does what. That means that the design assumes user-knowledge of the product, and that users have already developed the correct habit with this version. These are two assumptions that shouldn't be made in design, especially for a heavily-scaled product.

Check out these ambiguous designs as examples:

Others do signify, however (left is less, right is more). And although the aesthetics of these toilets vary, they all maintain the same function:

I would love to know how effective these dual-flush toilets are, but I wasn't able to find any rigorous evaluations of this design (let me know if you do).

As I've thought more about them, though, I realized that the biggest risk with dual-flush toilets likely isn't with the general New Zealand population. These toilets have been mandated in New Zealand since 1992, and a very consistent rule of thumb exists for the right being the larger flush. Instead, most user error with these likely occurs for new and inexperienced users (who don't have habits around this design, and may be unable to form the intended habit without more instruction).

So as these dual-flush toilets become more popular, we shouldn't assume that new regions will adopt them as successfully as New Zealanders use them today. Different contexts = different behaviors.


New zealand is environmental and nudge-friendly (plus a lesson)

During my trip, I found that Kiwis take lots of pride in their well-known environmentalism. I also found that their country is saturated with nudges, and not just environmental ones.

Overall, though, my biggest takeaway was a broad reminder that preferences and intentions are completely separate from actions. That is, what people say they'll do is not always the same as what they actually do. And yes, that principle even applies to one of the most environmentally-conscious places on Earth.


Have you spotted a nudge in the wild? Feel free to send them our way by:

We might feature you in an upcoming post!