A wall sticker from London based design and sustainability outfit Hu2 reminds the carbon cost of leaving the lights on.
A wall sticker from London based design and sustainability outfit Hu2 reminds the carbon cost of leaving the lights on.

The behavioural nudges for sustainability in the office

Nudge theory (also known as behavioural design)  is a theory from the behavioural sciences that proposes to encourage an individual to act, without ever trying to coerce him or her. Like stakeholders in many fields, whether in the economy, politics or public safety, the real estate sector has been looking at the concept of nudges for several years. The idea is to design homes in such a way as to encourage certain initiatives, for example, to encourage people to make positive decisions such as sorting their waste or reducing their energy consumption.

The concept was first popularised in 2008 by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health Wealth and Happiness. The book proposed that design interventions can appeal to our biases in everyday settings and prod us in the direction of better choices.

The first implementations in the 1990s and 2000s were applied to marketing, but became political in 2010, when David Cameron set up a nudge unit in his administration, followed by Barack Obama in 2013. The nudges have a low cost for a maximum effect in the fight against obesity, to encourage recycling or to regulate energy consumption.


Nudging :   changing behaviour without constraining

Why do we need nudges in the first place ?

The motivations that drive us to act are more often emotional than rational. Our choices are then influenced by cognitive biases, linked to our immediate environment. The theory of nudge starts from this observation to determine the factors that play on this emotional mode, and to modify in a beneficial way our environment and our choice architecture.

This technique, which comes from behavioural economics, aims to improve individual behaviour while limiting the negative impact on the community. The principle of nudge, theorised by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Thaler and the lawyer Sunstein, is based on a small intervention in our environment, which is easy to avoid, to guide our decision-making.

To achieve this, simple and inexpensive measures are put in place to encourage us to act in the desired direction and gradually correct our habits. These soft influence techniques help to avoid more restrictive and less effective measures. Taken together, these individual changes can have a positive impact on a large scale, as in the case of British Universities which followed  the guidelines of “The Little Book of Green Nudges”. This handbook, produced by The Behavioural Insights Team - once a division of the UK government – and the UN Environment Programme,  offers a simple guide to leaders in higher education for how to intervene in campus life to make institutions greener.

The guide suggests to use the EAST  ( Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) method  to encourage the desired behaviour. Citing the guide :


People often take the path of least resistance. You can therefore encourage desirable behaviours by removing small frictions or hassles, by defaulting people into the desirable choice, or by redesigning the way choices are presented to make the desirable behaviours easier.


Humans are more likely to adopt a behaviour when it captures our attention or is in line with our  motivation and beliefs. You can draw attention with visual cues that are particularly relevant or noticeable, and leverage motivation by emphasizing the positives and using incentives.


Human behaviour is hugely influenced by what others around us are doing. You can promote desirable actions by highlighting the fact that other people are adopting them. You can also make behaviour more publicly visible, and emphasize opportunities for people to help each other.


People are creatures of habit, so nudges are most effective at moments of change in people’s lives. We also have a deep tendency to emphasize the present more than the future. You can harness these tendencies by timing campaigns strategically, highlighting the immediate benefits of  sustainable actions, and helping people plan ahead

Source : United Nations Environment Programme, GRIDArendal and Behavioural Insights Team (2020).The Little Book of Green Nudges: 40 Nudges to Spark Sustainable Behaviour on Campus. Nairobi and Arendal: UNEP and GRID-Arendal.


Examples of workplace nudging

1.     Make sustainability Easy

Use defaults

Example : Make printer default settings black & white and recto/verso printing

Add friction

Example : Remove all but one waste basket per floor. By putting one waste basket in the far-away corner, everybody has to walk when they want to throw something away. This encourages people to move regularly, and discourages people to print or to produce waste. You can do the same with the printer : let just one printer at the far-away corner of the floor.

Example : Take the stairs. By slowing down the closing of the lift doors, you discourage people to take the lift and encourage them to take the stairs instead.

Change the choice environment

Example : Provide fewer carparking spaces and more bikeparking spaces.

2.     Make it Attractive

Draw attention

Example : Office Design : To make employees keep their distance so not to facilitate the propagation of the COVID-19 virus, put workstations on dark carpet. People will have the tendency not to step on the dark carpet and so naturally keep the desired distance

TUV certificering 6 feet office
Cushman & Wakefield 6-feet office concept

3.     Make Sustainability Social

Harness identity and the right messengers

Example : Display portraits of ethical leaders. Research has shown that putting pictures of people who are perceived as ethical leaders on the walls or on the desktop of the computers stimulates people with less unethical behaviour.


4.     Make sustainability Timely

Frame messages positively and highlight co-benefits.

Example : Use the lunchtime to promote sustainable food as tasty and indulgent. Combine this nudge with smaller plates, and you will get less food waste since people will eat less.




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