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Harnessing Peer Pressure to Encourage Environmentally Responsible Behavior

ashkin-stephenChanging cultural behaviors and beliefs about issues — including green and sustainability issues — is difficult. How and why it actually happens — or does not happen — is the subject of much debate among social scientists. Advocates for change typically start out with the reasons the changes are necessary, and very often they turn to warnings to wake people up or scare them into change. A perfect example is the Surgeon General’s report issued in 1964 regarding smoking. The report went out of its way, according to some observers, to warn Americans of the adverse effects of smoking.

In my own experience, when I first started advocating the use of more environmentally responsible cleaning chemicals and processes more than 20 years ago, my initial premise was that many traditional cleaning chemicals, although they served us well, had ingredients that could be seriously harmful to the health of the cleaning worker, building users and the environment. Because of this, we had to develop and use products and procedures that would help reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment.

Just as the Surgeon General’s report had some impact, it did not change behaviors as much or as fast as was hoped. There were some who heard and understood what I was saying, but very often it felt like I was talking to a brick wall. The professional cleaning industry moved very little when it came to the use of green cleaning chemicals two decades ago, and many thought it was no more than a fad, which would soon fade away.

Tina Rosenberg, author of the book Join the Club, explains why this likely happened in both examples. “No amount of information can budge us when we refuse to be budged. The catalog of justifications for destructive behaviors is a tribute to human ingenuity.”

Fortunately, I was able to get the ear of more and more manufacturers in the professional cleaning industry, but, of even greater importance, an increasing numbers of building owners and managers heard what I had to say and became gradually more concerned about the use of traditional cleaning chemicals. However, this does not explain why the use of environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals and procedures mushroomed to become essentially the norm that it is today in professional cleaning.

What likely happened, and what caused people and behaviors to change, was a form of peer pressure. Yes, the same thing that drives teenagers to wear certain clothes and engage in all kinds of crazy behaviors, was likely the driving force in green cleaning. Very simply, as one building owner or manager saw a building down the street go green — and because of this find it easier to attract new, higher quality and longer lasting tenants — they followed suit and adopted green and sustainable products and practices as well…and so it grew.

I am seeing this pattern now being repeated in the professional sports industry, and it is one of many reasons I am proud to be on the board of the Green Sports Alliance. It allows me to help lead and witness the evolution as it occurs. The Alliance started out in 2011 with six professional sports teams on board and five venues as founding members. Today, the Green Sports Alliance has grown to more than 300 professional and collegiate teams and venues from 20 different sports leagues and 14 countries.

There are some very practical reasons the Alliance has grown so quickly in the past few years. Under pressure from local communities and because of their own social responsibility, many sports teams, venues and organizations decided it was simply good business to find ways to reduce waste, conserve energy and water, and eliminate the use of toxic chemicals. But they also found that these initiatives were greeted with approval by fans and their local communities and because of this, word spread from one team to another and soon other teams and organizations jumped on the green and sustainability bandwagon.

One of the goals of the Green Sports Alliance is not only to green the professional and collegiate sports industries but also to influence the millions of sports fans around the world to adopt green and sustainable practices in their own professional and personal lives. It is very likely that peer pressure will surface here as well and result in some astonishing changes in social and cultural behavior. We can scare some people into making changes, but getting them on board because they are motivated by a desire to follow the example and success of their peers will likely be far more powerful and move social change far faster when it comes to green and sustainability issues.

Stephen Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).

Stephen P. Ashkin
Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies. Ashkin has worked in the cleaning industry since 1981 and has held senior management positions in leading consumer and commercial product companies. He began his work on green cleaning in 1990 and today is thought of as the “father of green cleaning.” For more information, visit www.AshkinGroup.com
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One thought on “Harnessing Peer Pressure to Encourage Environmentally Responsible Behavior

  1. Excellent article. I think there are some differences, however, comparing now and the Surgeon General’s report on smoking (which by the way, caused my father to quit on the spot, cold turkey). Back then, government reports were revered and thought about by all as “the truth”. Now, we are closer to the other extreme, as some people actually believe that any government report is a conspiracy to do something that only benefits a small number of people. Fortunately, I said “some”.

    But I do agree about the fence sitting. Few people want to be the first to do something, even if they are convinced of its business benefits. People like to see their “neighbors” or friends or competitors do it first, and only then join in. It is human nature, I guess.

    I have the same problems convincing mayors and building managers to even do energy studies to find cost-saving ideas, not to mention to implement them. Despite great opportunities, people are scared or think it is another headache. The status quo is so much easier. Therefore, I try to bring out the negatives of keeping the status quo (energy prices will rise quite high in the future, incentives will decline, etc. Now is the best time to upgrade).

    Thanks for a fine article.


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