75% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists

Can a social movement become “trendy”? As of 2008, over three-quarters of Americans considered themselves environmentalists. How does this affect the way conservation is marketed? How does social marketing affect, well, our social lives?

These “trends” can also be referred to as what we call social norms in the marketing world. Social norms are defined as “rules or behaviours that are considered acceptable in a group or society. People who do not follow these norms may be shunned or suffer some kind of consequence”. Social norms are used in all forms of marketing, a few print examples can be seen in the photos below.

Studies have shown that we react better to advertisements that include social norms, as opposed to those that do not. In a study done using hotel towels, the effects of these social norms as a means to encourage environmental conservation is evident. An experiment was conducted in a hotel guest room, in which the messages on the hotel towel card consisted of the two different variations below.

The first message read: “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay”.

The second message read: “JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay”.

What the scientists discovered was quite interesting, people were more likely to reuse their towels when they had learned the majority of guests before them had done so. In fact, message two resulted in a 44% higher towel reuse rate than message 1. An explanation for this can be found in the Festinger social comparison theory. According to the theory, people most often evaluate themselves through comparison to others. In fact, the more similarities that exist between the two parties, the more likely people are to mimic their behaviours. Mirrored behaviour increases as the perceived importance of others increases. Again, we see evidence of this in the second half of the study. Guests were again given two different towel reuse cards, and monitored on their reuse rates. One of the messages gave the reuse rate for hotels in general, while another gave the reuse rates for that particular room. As expected, guests were more likely to reuse their towels when the second message was displayed, as this was the most relatable.

Unfortunately, none of the hotel rooms the researchers had visited had employed any type of social norm messaging, of which there are 3 main types:

  1. Green Marketing: appeals to the environmentally sensitive segment
  2. Demarketing: in situations where demand sometimes exceeds supply, demand must be managed
  3. Societal Issues marketing: changes attitudes and behaviours in “socially desirable” directions

Social norms could potentially be used in all three situations, and evidently increase the success rate of the campaigns. So why not take advantage of social norms? In many ways, environmental conservation has become a “trend” already. From veganism, to eco-travel, to the increasing popularity of consignment fashion, environmental conservation is squeezing its way into popular culture. Even celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Johnson have not only identified as conservationists, but have woven it into their everyday lives.

So I’ll say it again, over 75% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, do you?

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Bianca Salive is a recent graduate from the Environment and Business program at the University of Waterloo in Canada. In the iconic words of her Twitter bio, she is a “Nomadic Treehugger. Biophiliac. Welcome to the mind of an eco-maniac.” Follow her on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Kurt Bauschardt




Cialdini, R., Goldstein, N., Griskevicius, V. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Journal of Consumer Research: 35, 472- 482

Robert Mackoy, Roger J. Calantone and Cornelia L. Dröge. “Environmental Marketing: Bridging the Divide between the Consumption Culture and Environmentalism” New YorkEnvironmental Marketing: Developments in Practice, Theory and Research (1995)

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