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Collective vision for incentives

Eric Pickles made national news again with the Government’s new £5m fund, designed to increase recycling rates by offering vouchers and retail loyalty rewards to householders if they change their behaviour on what they do with their waste.

On paper this sounds like a no brainer once you remove it from the slightly inflammatory context of only those areas with weekly collections being eligible.

It is an approach we endorse here at WasteSolve HQ across our commercial client base. If you want your staff to go the extra mile and change from one system to another to benefit the company, you need to share the benefits to truly sustain the change. It is human nature to ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ It is about sharing the value which can then authenticate and therefore accelerate the success of a recycling scheme.

But it is about more than just a voucher or a freebie here and there. It needs to be backed up with a sense of community and togetherness – a collective goal with a collective benefit. People need to buy into, believe and ultimately start to see the benefits to truly change their behaviour.

If councils started to invest recycling revenue back into the communities that have boosted their recycling rates, and communicate what has been accomplished in a tangible fashion, the penny would start to drop with people.

Who wouldn’t like to see a new park or play area paid for by the community recycling fund? And what about householders voting for the next community benefit to aim for?

In fact, Pickles could do worse than take some inspiration from a previous politician. As Benjamin Franklin said: opinion “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

From our experience in the commercial sector, we find across the industries we work with, from SMEs to PLCs, that people perform much better when they feel their personal values and ideals are aligned with those of their organisation.

Economists often emphasise that incentives matter. The basic law of behaviour is that greater incentives will lead to more effort and higher performance.

In recent years, the use of incentives in behavioural interventions has become more popular. Should students be provided with financial incentives for increased school attendance, for reading or for better grades? Will financial incentives encourage greater contributions to public initiatives, such as blood donations? Should programmes to reduce smoking or encourage exercise include a monetary incentive?   

The use of incentives have provoked heated debate. Proponents of using incentives in behavioural interventions argue, for example, that monetary incentives can be helpful in getting people to study or exercise more. But opponents believe that using incentives in such areas could backfire because extrinsic incentives may in some way crowd out intrinsic motivations that are important to producing the desired behaviour.

This implies that companies which value creativity and innovation should have a meaningful and clearly articulated purpose and mission, and should hire and promote people who are in tune with that purpose. It suggests that camaraderie, teamwork and employee development are more critical to performance than lucrative monetary incentives.

It is a debate that can go round in circles, and certainly one we mull over in the office when thinking up new client strategies around recycling. But, as we have learned, what is absolutely central when planning and building any engagement strategy is that each client is different and each business needs a unique solution.

Rewarding on an individual and a collective level are the fundamentals – it is a real hearts and minds approach. Our most successful recycling initiative ever was one that facilitated a surplus food donation network from a large food manufacturer to local community groups in need. The behavioural change required around this was instant and sustained, and the community partnership continues to flourish.

Changing behaviour and sustaining that change is tricky – there is a whole industry out there making a living from it, which implies to me that there is not a one size fits all approach. No one has found that elusive magic formula yet, so hats off to Pickles for trying something new.

But rather than pin it on the individual, why not link it into a collective benefit so it lasts the distance? Intrinsically we all like to feel good and, as my daughter so succinctly said to me this morning on the way to school: “Don’t forget to smile today, Mummy, because then you will get smiles back.”

Kate Cawley is creative director at sustainability consultancy WasteSolve

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