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Recyclebank: Applying Social Marketing Principles to Motivate Consumer Behavior Change

Written by Sustainable Life Media, Michaela Hayes
Published: June 2, 2011

These days, we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that it’s important to recycle. If such individuals exist, they are certainly in the minority. On the other hand, there is a much larger portion of the population that believes it’s important to recycle, but finds it challenging to do so. Most people recycle some of the time, but it is a minority that recycles to the fullest extent possible.
How can we increase the portion of the population in this latter category? This is the core challenge faced by many sustainability efforts: how to motivate the large majority of the population that wants to “do the right thing,” but faces barriers (internal and/or external) to doing so.
Recyclebank ( is addressing this challenge with apparent success. As described by Ian Yolles, Recyclebank’s Chief Sustainability Office, in a Sustainable Brands 2011 pre-conference webinar, the organization’s approach employs many of the core components of social marketing.

This begs consideration of the value of applying social marketing principles to environmental issues, which I hope will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming Sustainable Brands 2011 conference.
Social marketers seek to motivate behavior that creates “social good.” They strive to understand the barriers that prevent individuals (and communities) from performing the desired behavior, as well as the behaviors that compete with the desired behavior. Like all marketers, social marketers seek to understand the benefits of the desired behavior in the eyes of the target market—that is, they seek to find the answers to their customers’ question: “What’s in it for me?”

In the case of recycling, the barriers include the time and inconvenience of having to recycle, while the competitors include all the demands on one’s time.
The benefits of recycling are clear: reduced landfill and pollution, a cleaner environment, etc. However, for many people, even though these benefits have value to them, the value isn’t tangible or immediate enough to motivate behavior change.
In social marketing, we define benefits from the perspective of the target market. This is the approach that Recyclebank takes. It “rewards” recycling behavior with points that can be exchanged for discounts on products and services. This is a more immediate benefit than the intangible benefit of a cleaner environment.
At the same time, Recyclebank provides feedback on the amount of material recycled, which also provides a direct benefit to those involved: they know the impact of their efforts. The incorporation of a measure of the impact of the behavior change is excellent and facilitates ongoing evaluation. It also addresses an important component of social marketing: increasing the target market’s knowledge and awareness of the issue, and their engagement in impacting it.
The point system interjects a degree of fun into the equation. It enables individuals and communities to “compete” to earn the most points, which translates into diverting the most trash from landfills into recycled materials. In addition, Recyclebank creates an online community, which offers social rewards to members, as well as economic ones. Here, too, we find another component of social marketing: fostering “social norms” around the desired behavior.
Given the challenge of moving people to integrate recycling fully into their day-to-day behavior, it is essential to apply approaches like Recyclebank’s, rather than waiting for, cajoling or prodding people to overcome the barriers on their own. The latter creates a stalemate, which does nothing to impact the issue.

While clearly Recyclebank is making a difference, there is a key question that I hope Yolles will address in his session at Sustainable Brands 2011: At what point is the behavior is so engrained that it is no longer necessary to provide external incentives? This is true test of an effective intervention—one that produces lasting, sustainable behavior change.


You can also read this article and watch the webinar over at Sustainable Life Media.

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