Afterlife Effect

We recycle more when shown what the product will become

This new research shows that environmental nudging needn't be negative. If we're shown that recycling this bottle will become that hairbrush, we're much more likely to do so. Telling a positive story can inspire behavioral change!

Winterich, K. P., Nenkov, G. Y., & Gonzales, G. E. (2019). Knowing What It Makes: How Product Transformation Salience Increases Recycling. Journal of Marketing, 83(4), 21-37.

Did you know that since plastic was invented in 1907, a staggering 91% of the 8.3bn tonnes produced since has not been recycled (Geyer, Jambeck, and Law 2017)?

It's true that certain companies such as PepsiCo and Evian have already committed to 100%-recycled manufacture by 2020 and 2025, respectively. But more generally, we're still a long way off; plastics recycling actually fell in recent years from 9.5 to 9.1% (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] 2018a).

How then might we use our understanding of behavioral economics to improve the policies of government, industries and companies and speed up this process?

So far, a lot of behavioral research has been done on the more negative side of persuasive messaging to affect decisions to recycle (Bilandzic, Kalch, and Soentgen, 2017) which, though effective on some, can come across as coercive and trigger angry reactance in others, reducing its effectiveness (Griskevicius, Cantu, and Van Vugt 2012).

Despite the doom and gloom that surrounds the bigger question of our collective future, how instead might behavioral economics appeal to a more positive, inspirational side of our decision-making?

Well, some brilliant new research has just been released showing us how. It's called the Afterlife Effect, part of a growing trend of more positive behavioral nudges that you'll start to see a lot more of in future.

The concept

The researchers propose a new, positive way of increasing recycling that focuses on the story of what happens to old products after they've been recycled and what they turn into.

What lies at the core of these stories told? Inspiration, defined as an awareness of a new idea or concept that we didn't know before, so-called "aha moments" ("Oh, so that's what the cups become!"), followed by a new-found motivation to act on it ("That's so cool. It's great to see the impact of my recycling").

This short story provides a powerful, positive and understandable feedback loop as to why we should recycle.

Let's take a look at the research that demonstrates this concept to see the effect on people's recycling.

The research

Study 1 - Showing how a product's afterlife can boost recycling behavior

111 people were split into two core groups (a control and a product afterlife condition) and asked to perform a 'mind-clearing task' of doodling on a sheet of paper.

All were then shown one of three advertisements for product recycling (shown below) and asked to rate it for how likely they'd be to recycle.

They were then asked to clean away their desks, putting their paper either in a recycling container or the trash.

The results fascinatingly showed that those that saw the control with no afterlife information recycled their paper 51% of the time, whereas those in the Afterlife condition recycled 80% of the time! A staggering increase.

Study 2 - Higher click-throughs for ads with product afterlife

The researchers also wanted to see what impact the Afterlife Effect would have on click-throughs on a real advertising campaign.

They worked with clothing company Madewell, who were running a jeans recycling campaign at the time, where old jeans would be turned into household insulation.

Two Google Adwords variants were set up to test to see if the effect held both with and without the Afterlife Effect applied.

After running the campaign for 5 days, the researchers found that click-throughs were significantly higher (26%) for the Afterlife ad over the control (18%), even without any optimization!

The paper lists a further four studies that show the impact of the Afterlife Effect on decision-making.

In summary, given the urgency to act, there is a strong motivation to find new ways to help people to change their environmental consumer behavior. Using storytelling, feedback loops and triggering inspiration in people can act as a much more positive and powerful motivator for behavior change that won't trigger negative reactions.

Key Takeaways

Positivity is persuasive! Consider inspirational nudges over negative ones in an environmental context. Although triggering Loss Aversion with the latter can be effective, you may see greater results with a positive nudge.

Close the loop with a simple story. Consumers value the powerful stories told by products made from recycled material (Kamleitner, Thuerridl, and Martin 2019).

 Inspire with the Afterlife Effect. Get people to think about the transformative effects of turning old products into new ones. Providing information on the transformation of recyclables into new products is surprisingly rare. If you sell a physical product, how can you build in and communicate its afterlife? For instance, UK retailer Marks & Spencer is now rolling out a scheme where you can recycle any plastic in-store and it will be turned into a number of things, including shop fixtures and playground equipment for schools. They could use the box to show off the intended afterlife to inspire customers, as shown here.

• Make it timely.  Governments can also do a better job of motivating recycling at the point of disposal with the Afterlife Effect. Recycling rates will be increased if we can see, at the point of disposal, what our efforts will turn into.

• Consider tie-ups with complementary products / brands. Though Nespresso recycle the aluminium from their coffee pods, they currently have no Afterlife Effect in place. They could alternatively use recycled materials to make some of the complementary metal-based products on their site and gift them to those with a decent level of recycling.

• Afterlife Effect better suits certain product types.  For instance, shoes recycled as underwear might not be as appealing as milk jugs remade into toys. It's important to balance concerns around product quality as well as feelings of potential disgust!

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  • Aspirational membership schemes and belonging The category size bias provides a credible explanation for why we human beings tend to associate with large groups that are viewed favourably by society. Being part of a large and “desirable” social group can make others believe that we also possess the many qualities of its members. For small businesses, it suggests that forming or being a part of a consortium or large and high quality networking group can dramatically elevate your brand image.
  • Communicating category sizes to nudge effectively Highlighting the differences between the large and small categories is highly likely to enhance the effect of the Category Size Bias. For instance, for software companies, stating that there are 10 features in the premium version versus 4 in the free version will help nudge a decision towards the premium version

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  1. The findings from this braingem can nudge better healthcare choices, encourage consumption of a given product, and lead to more confident consumer decisions.
  2. We mistakenly believe that items in larger categories have a higher probability of being picked than ones in smaller categories, despite all items having an equal chance of being picked.
  3. We’ll spend or gamble more money on items put in larger categories.
  4. We’re more likely to take action from tasks when they’re in a bigger list, over a smaller list.
  5. We once we put something into a group, we perceive it to adopt all the characteristics of that group. This suggests that small companies should foster alliances with similarly-principled, more established companies.
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