Can behavioural techniques nudge us towards sustainable tourism?

I am reflecting on this having been a tourist recently and as someone fascinated by the sustainability say-do gap. By that I mean if you ask someone if sustainability is important to them when they are booking their holiday, the chances are they will rate it as high in importance but then when you delve down into the finer details, there’s a gap between what people say and then subsequently what they do. I admit I’m certainly not perfect here.

In a study commissioned by Google, UK consumers were asked whether sustainability was an important influence in purchasing, 64% of people agreed it was for purchasing products vs. just 47% for buying a service. As the article hypothesises this might have something to do with tangibility, the ability to see it/ feel it and I suppose tourism could be described as service in this context.

So how can we go about bridging this gap, can behavioural techniques help here?

Behavioural therapy techniques use reinforcement, punishment, shaping, modelling, and related techniques to alter a person’s behaviour.

It sounds quite intrusive but combined with nudging techniques it can have surprising results. At a recent scientific conference, I heard about practical experiments in behavioural techniques to bring about sustainable behaviour in hotels which not only ‘saves the planet’ but saved the hotel money in these experiments.

My top three nudges:

  1. Simply reducing the size of the plates available at the breakfast buffet will reduce food waste quite significantly. I am sure we have all tried that delicate balancing act on your plate to avoid going up to the buffet numerous times or perhaps thinking you were hungrier than you were. A smaller plate will help with that moderation.
  2. Still on food waste, as it is such an important area but this time on the staff side rather than the consumer. Having a see though bin in the kitchen means staff can see the waste and therefore can be proactive in trying to reduce it. Even doing this at home is effective.
  3. It’s not just adults who should be engaged, involving children in gamification and rewarding them for particular behaviour is a technique used by some hotels. For example, when they finish their plate at breakfast, they are given a sticker to collect, one of many to promote sustainable behaviour. Some of which might rub off on the adults too.

Of course, these are some examples of techniques that have worked, as always behind the scenes are many other that have failed but as with everything, experiments are as important as asking consumers questions to understand the whole picture

Did I see any when I was away? Yes, smaller plates and also the emphasis on local and seasonal menus. That wasn’t one I mentioned above but is a good example of simple ways to encourage sustainable behaviour. See if you spot any on your next break.

Written by Claire Jones and edited by Dave Caygill

Claire Jones
Claire Jones
Claire has always been interested in problem solving and using insight creatively in the storytelling process having spent her career uncovering and delivering strategic insight that makes a difference to brands, governments and not-for-profit organisations. She is currently Head of Insight at London & Partners, the business growth and destination agency for London, a social enterprise whose mission is to create economic growth that is resilient, sustainable and inclusive. She is passionate about sustainability and recently completed a Business Sustainability Management course at Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership. She is enjoying applying these learnings in her day job with London businesses and tourism partners and is keen to share them more widely with the SMEs community. Claire is also a member of the Association of Sustainability Practitioners whose purpose is to promote learning that transforms behaviour from unsustainable to sustainable practices.

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