Is a nudge enough

29th July 2011 Posted by

The ‘nudge theory’, which was borrowed by the Conservatives from the Obama administration, was a central ideological platform at the last election. The idea of ‘nudge’ is to incrementally push society towards positive behavioural change. However, as with the concept of the ‘big society’, it is perhaps ideological in its desire to reduce the activity of the State.

Recently, the House of Lords published a report into Government’s use of behavioural science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, although the concept was an addition to the policy toolkit, ‘nudges’ were not found to create significant long-term behavioural change on their own. The influence they do have tends not to have a wider societal impact.

Should we therefore wholly dismiss the idea of ‘nudges’ and behavioural change science for issues concerning the environment? Should we instead resort to the tried and tested fiscal measures, such as landfill tax, to punish domestic and commercial producers of waste to change their ways?

Peer pressure, as we have all no doubt personally experienced, is powerful in creating lasting behavioural change. In the waste and recycling industry, this simple behavioural tool has been used to great effect by the retail sector through the voluntary Courtauld Agreement. Within the agreement, retailers come together to tackle the issue of excessive packaging. By feeding off each others’ competitive natures, they have made significant reductions to both their carbon footprints and their cost base.

The recent Waste Review encouraged the use of Courtauld type agreements for other sectors. Whilst this is positive, we need to make more extensive and wider behavioural changes. I think we need to add in policy and fiscal changes as well.

I have always been a strong advocate of the Landfill Tax Escalator. With Government giving better visibility on future levels, business now has the security it needs to begin to build a new infrastructure to, as SITA UK says, ‘put waste to good use’. But to leave future environmental improvement to voluntary producer responsibility schemes and crude taxation only would be missing an opportunity to speed up the pace of change. Therefore, I would propose the introduction of a series of other policy changes in support, some of which we describe in the centre pages of our publication ‘Achieving the vision of no more waste‘.

Therefore I’d like to see a bit more of a shove than a nudge to build up real momentum. We all know that once a wheel is moving, it then only then needs a nudge to keep it going at the right speed and in the right direction.

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