Is Going Green a Cooperation Problem?

Is Going Green a Cooperation Problem?

Author James Surowiecki, who penned The Wisdom of Crowds, defines a cooperation problem as one “that involves the challenge of getting self-interested, distrustful people to work together, even when narrow self-interest would seem to dictate that no individual should take part.” Creating a more sustainable world is such a challenge.

A well-known example of cooperation is paying taxes – everyone pays and everyone enjoys the benefits funded by our tax dollars from public education to highways, public safety to the military.

But the fundamental problem with paying taxes, and with the idea of going green to benefit the common good, is that individuals can reap the benefits without actually paying taxes or making more sustainable choices that potentially involve sacrifice. Free riders are rewarded. Personal responsibility is thrown out the window. Self-interest reigns. There is limited cooperation toward a common goal.

Unfortunately, this year’s EcoPulse data seems to show that personal responsibility is on the decline. Belief in global warming is slipping. Environmental concerns are a distant third behind comfort and convenience. Americans are less willing to give up their iPods and other electronics even if they think it’s harming the environment. Many Americans seem content to let others take action to help combat climate change and environmental degradation. In other words, free ridership is up, cooperation is down.

Behavioral economics experiments tell us that most people will participate as long as they believe that enough other people are participating too. So how do we as green marketers communicate that green has reached critical mass? Is there a way to create social pressure on individuals to do their part? How does that information become visible? What role does marketing play in that?

Social theory states that if lots of people are doing something, others assume there must be a good reason why, and so those other people start exhibiting the same behavior. The bigger the crowd doing the behavior gets, the more influential it becomes, bringing more people into the fold – most of them without necessarily knowing why.

Is it more important that we tell people why they need to go green or is it just as powerful to tell them that everyone else is doing it? Will more Americans make sustainable choices if they know lots of other people just like them are already going green? As marketers, we have a few powerful tools in our hands to communicate that green is what the crowd is doing – the testimonial. The statistic. The case study. “More Americans believe that (fill in the blank here)” is a powerful phrase. “Cathy Smith made this change and you can, too” is a powerful idea. The “you’re not part of the club” insinuation is also powerful. There are numerous other approaches that can also be leveraged to capitalize on this insight.

If marketers can reward cooperation, and identify and punish free riders, if marketers can show that green is widely accepted by mainstream Americans, then perhaps we’d see more progress – from behavior change to purchases – toward a common goal of creating a more sustainable world.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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