The relentless positivity of Plastic Free July

13 July 2022

#PlasticFreeJuly The purposefully positive approach used by international action campaigns such as Plastic Free July (PFJ) is characteristic of the direction sustainability social marketing is going, according to environmental psychology researcher and Head of Psychology at University of Canterbury (UC) Professor Don Hine.

  • Prof Don Hine Low

    Head of Psychology at UC Professor Don Hine says environmental campaigns that target individual behaviour-change are fine, but we need system level change as well.

Research from UC recently showed, for the first time, that microplastics are ubiquitous, appearing even in the air we breathe and in freshly fallen snow in Antarctica. There is no mention on this on the PFJ website, however.

“That’s generally consistent with where climate change research and sustainability communications are going; people have really doubled down on the positive narrative,” Professor Hine says.

“Not so much in Aotearoa, but certainly in the US and Australia people are bombarded with negative messages - you have to be afraid of this and you have to be afraid of that - and people end up exhausted by the negativity. People have pushed back against it.”

Negative messages may be out of favour, but they can cut through the noise in some circumstances, Professor Hine says.

“Some of our own research on what we call ‘fear appeals’ suggests that invoking fear coupled with self-efficacy, telling people what they can do to reduce the threat, can be quite effective in terms of motivating people. I don’t think the claims for positive messaging are really based on hard data at this point.”

Taking a cue from business marketing principles, market segmentation is a smart starting point when designing psychology behaviour change projects, Professor Hine says.

“Whatever group you’re dealing with – say residents of Christchurch – there are massive amounts of diversity. People have different values, different knowledge, and different motivations. We use a behaviour change framework called COM-B – capability, opportunities, motivation and behaviour - to engage different segments in a population in fundamentally different ways.”

Segmenting is evident in the PFJ approach; options for action are offered for beginners through to pros with suggestions for work, home, school, and community situations.

Another strategy that underlies the campaign relies on our tendency to follow the group: “Join millions of people reducing their plastic waste,” the PFJ website entreats.

“There is research on what’s called social norms, which refers to external pressures that your peers and others in society might put on you. We are a lot more like sheep than we would like to admit, and we look around and think ‘I should be doing that too’,” he says.

Professor Hine acknowledges that PFJ may encourage participants onto other types of pro-environmental behaviour, however it can also result in the opposite. The ‘negative spillover effect’ is where people participate in one action and, feeling virtuous, reduce other pro-environmental behaviours. So, you might refuse single-use plastic during July and then go zooming about town in a carbon-emitting SUV, for example.

Professor Hine’s main reservation with campaigns such as PFJ, however, is the efficacy of individual action compared to system-level change.

“For transformational change action has happen at those higher levels. Plastic Free July will maybe help a little bit by exerting pressure on those decision makers who can stop this tide of plastic, and invest in alternatives, to limit our own plastic use. However, as individuals our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem.

“Take the ban on single-use plastic-bags for example. The government passed a law and single-use plastic bags were removed overnight. It takes many creative behaviour-change projects to achieve that level of result if you ever do.”

Reach is important, however, and it can feel good to join millions of people in a plastic-free global challenge. There is nothing wrong with that, Professor Hine says, but we will be more effective if we think and act more broadly as well.

“I’m all for this as something that gets people engaged and interested and hopefully exerts some political pressure to decrease the demand for plastic.”

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