Tag Archives: environment

To Nudge, Shove or Prod – when is a bag tax not a bag tax?

From this Saturday (1st October) all retailers in Wales will be required to charge 5 pence for every single use carrier bag it hands out [Note: the levy in Wales is not restricted to plastic bags]. Any business caught handing out bags without charging the levy face a £5,000 fine.

This will make Wales the first country in the UK to introduce such a charge. The Northern Ireland Executive is consulting on similar proposals now. Scotland and England may head in the same direction.  At a UK level plastic bag use fell quite substantially between 2006 and 2009 following a concerted effort by the Labour government, business and environmental campaigners to drive down the 11bn bags we used in 2006 to just under 6.5 bn in 2009. However that trend bottomed out and bag use rose again last year. As a result the Coalition Government is “looking carefully” at what happens in Wales with the introduction of a mandatory charge.

Although pejoratively referred to as the “Welsh bag tax” no money from the charge goes directly to the Welsh Government (VAT is collected for HM Treasury). Rather than a means of direct revenue generation instead the charge has been introduced with an explicitly behaviour change objective – to reduce the number of single use bags given out in Wales, (in 2009-10 this was estimated at 350 million bags from supermarkets alone). The Welsh Government anticipates the charge will see a 90% reduction in the number of bags distributed in Wales.

Not everyone, least of all the Carrier Bag Consortium or the pressure group the Tax Payers Alliance, is happy about this new “stealth tax”. Bag tax is also criticised as rather marginal in environmental terms. They form a relatively small component of the waste stream yet have been easy for politicians, environmentalists and even big business to characterise as a major menace that everyone can tackle providing a superficial quick win and self-congratulatory slaps on the backs all round.

Easy solutions - Not always are the best ones

By pushing onto the public yet another ‘easy step’ on the path to sustainability and encouraging the consumption of ‘eco-bling‘ (as George Monbiot describes it), the fetishisation of the plastic bag menace is charged with doing little to change underlying mindsets of consumption and disposability or more damaging behaviours. But one outcome will be an additional pot of cash for environmental projects in Wales.

Revenue raised is supposed to then go to “good causes”, causes of the retailers own choosing (estimated at £3 million in the first year). The extent to which this will happen is unclear as in another ‘nudge’ the Welsh Government will not prescribe where retailers spend the additional money. It has an expectation that the proceeds of the tax will “be passed on to charities or good causes in Wales, and in particular to environmental projects”. A little wooly and light touch perhaps but this carrot is backed up with the usual governmental stick of the promise of further regulations to determine where the money is spent if Welsh business does not play ball.

Of course none of this is particularly new. Many companies such as Marks & Spencer and Ikea voluntarily introduced charges on such bags a few years ago. Other countries have either imposed an outright ban or introduced a levy upon plastic bags (e.g. China, Italy, Rwanda, South Africa, Mexico City, Washington DC, Hong Kong, Ireland).

Citizens Pledge

The citizens pledge - Uttarakhand is a state in northern India

And a number of British towns and cities have tried to emulate the success of Modbury in Devon (Britain’s first “plastic bag free town”) launching voluntarist campaigns trying to persuade local retailers and consumers to switch from plastic carrier bags. With support from all 33 borough councils in London Borishas unsuccessfully spent two years promoting the idea of making “London a plastic bag free city” in time for the Olympic Games.

(2008 Survey)


You would think this issue would have been dealt with years ago, given explicit cross party political and public support (although nudgers would note the discrepancy between what people say and do, but see the Daily Mail/ICM Poll, 2008). Yet the lack the legal powers to impose and enforce a ban/levy coupled with the inertia and entropy inherent in much grassroots campaigning has seen many local campaigns flounder. So Wales has become the first place in the UK where the bag menace can be tackled through a combination of the nudge and the shove to try and achieve a shift in the behaviour of a population. Quite where the nudge comes in is perhaps less clear than might appear.

If this is indeed a nudge then it is really more about the state mandating the placement of a question and a consequent choice in front of the consumer where previously one did not exist. So the introduction of a charge, however small, for something that was previously a ‘free gift with any purchase’ (the cost was already factored in to retailers overheads) reframes the relative value of the bag.

A softer nudge would be training the cashier to ask you an innocuous sounding question like “Good morning, do you have your bags with you?” Underpinned by a legislative shove the Welsh Government nudge seems more of a prod that aims to inculcate a new social norm (bag for life, avoid the strife). No one has to pay the charge, they could make do without a bag or bring their own. In other words they could change their behaviour and from the Irish example it seems likely the majority will do so.

Arrggh! It's the Slovenian plastic bag monster!

Ireland married its bag tax with a large scale education programme and receipts went directly into an Environmental Fund so the link between tax and spend was clear. It is a shame Wales has been unable to do likewise. Unfortunately the awareness raising campaign in Wales has been limited so far, one consequence of which may be to compound resistance and irritation over the Welsh levy which may diminish its effectiveness. Setting the charge at the relatively low level of 5 pence may counter this, though conversely it may also make it easier for the consumer citizen to carry on as before (Ireland is increasing its charge to 22 cents as bag usage has recently begun creeping up again).

But it is an interesting experiment all the same. Watch this space to see whether this combination of nudge and shove does indeed produce a profound change in environmental behaviour of the Welsh population the government hopes for, or whether further prodding may be required …



Shallow and Deep Paternalism

In a blog post on the 6th August 2009 (Sticks, stones and lexical nudges) I was critical of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Warm Words publication (2006). This report suggested that if we could somehow change the “linguistic landscape” associated with climate change—largely from alarmism to pragmatic optimism— we could more effectively get people to change their climatic behaviours. My critique argued that such linguistic nudges embodied superficial attempts to short-circuit the climate change debate through a process of sub-conscious subterfuge. The good news is that things appear to be improving within the field of environmental behaviour change. The recent publication of the report Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values appears to signal a shift from addressing the surface framing of climate change to its deep psychological resonance.

Common Cause was published by a collection of Environmental NGOs in September 2010 and was written by Tom Crompton, a ‘Change Strategist’ at WWF-UK. According to the Common Cause report: ‘It seems that individuals are often predisposed to reject information when accepting it would challenge their identity and values. Campaigning approaches that rely on the provision of information may well work for people whose existing values are confirmed through accepting, and acting upon, that information. But for others, the same information (for example, about the scale of the challenge that climate change presents) may simply serve to harden resistance to accepting new government policies or adopting new private sphere behaviours’ (2010: 9).

The ideas presented in Common Cause have been influenced by the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California Berkeley. In particular the Report draws on Lakoff’s distinction between deep and surface frames. Surface framing involves the use of key words and phrases to guide the ways in which people approach and understanding an issue. Deep frames on the other hand relate to the ‘cognitive structures held in long-term memory’ (2010: 42). The crucial insight of Lakoff’s work is the emphasis it places on the interrelationships between deep and surface frames. According to Lakoff, the success of surface frames (like the climate crisis), in guiding and shaping human behaviour, depends on the ways in which they resonate with deeper frames and associated values. The compelling argument of Common Cause is that people are failing to take action on climate change because the climate change message is at fundamental odds with our deep frames and associated sense of self.

The message of the Common Cause report is of great value to those interested in how to transform our individual and collective relationships with the environment. While there are some who still wait for definitive proof from science of the climate crisis, I personally feel that science may have taken us as far as it can. The point is that even if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could tomorrow produce a definitive consensus on the exact nature and consequences of climate change it would be unlikely to significantly shift behaviour. As Common Cause points out, the scientific message on climate change has to resonate with our deep frames. To these ends, it is clearly important to consider why it is that we value the accumulation of wealth, gratuitous consumption, and economic measures of success, despite their deleterious consequences for our climate, so much. It is clearly these values that should be the target of environmental behaviour change policies in the future. It is, of course, precisely these values that the Transition Culture, Degrowth, and Voluntary Simplicity Movements have already been focusing upon.

The more cynical among us can quite fairly argue that surely the problems of climate change are quite enough to have to deal with, without also having to initiate a fundamental shift in the nature of human values as well. This may, however, be the real challenge of climate change.


DIY Streets and Community-Based Nudges

Every now and again you have one of those life affirming days when you realize what life could be like if we lived under slightly different circumstances. I had just one of those days recently when I visited the residents of Beech Croft Road in North Oxford. I was on Beech Croft Road to witness the commencement of a new DIY street project. Initiated by local residents, and inspired and funded through Sustrans’ DIY Streets programme, the Beech Croft Road scheme has two broad goals: 1) to slow down traffic travelling along the road; 2) and to make the road a space that is shared between cars and the local community, and not simply given over to traffic movement functions.

On arrival, as a somewhat awkward stranger of the street, local residents immediately drew me into discussion about what was going on. It was assumed that I was a passing local, but when it emerged that I had travelled from Aberystwyth to see what was happening people seemed please that word of their project had spread so far. The road had been closed for the day to allow for two main activities.

First was the street transformation. The residents were trialling the introduction of a series of street objects that were designed to act as psychological prompts to change driver behaviour. The first of these was a psychological speed bump that was to be painted on the road. Based on an attractive geometric pattern that mirrored the Victorian paving that had been used on several properties of the street, the psychological speed bump took some careful planning by the residents, as they worked all day, and through the heat, to see it to completion. Other objects that were to be introduced included street planters and bike racks, that would be collectively used to break-up the linearity of the road and again slow traffic.

The second main activity of the day was the street party. This brought more residents to the street, partly to cast an eye over the new objects that had appeared on their road, but also to engage in a lively game of egg-flinging, a community barbeque, and to partake of the rapidly constructed cocktail bar.

The DIY Street initiative has been inspired by a series of community movements, planning philosophies and environmental concerns. These movements range from the community-based street reclamations instigated by City Repair in Portland, Oregon, to the “shared space” planning practices of the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. What they have in common, however, is the realization that for too long our streets and roads have been designed with the dominant aim of facilitating efficient transportation and linear mobility. This process has had the twin effects of fragmenting communities whose only shared public space is a road; and of making roads less safe – as traffic speeds have increased along easy to navigate mono-functional highways.

DIY Streets encourages communities to take back some degree of ownership over their streets. It is not about banning cars, but about making drivers aware that roads have more than one function. Consequently, by introducing psychological speed bumps, street arches, and various local accoutrement, DIY practitioners attempt to de-homogenise roads: to provide them with a sense of territorial distinctiveness which speaks quietly in ear of the driver, saying, “people live on this street, people like me, with children and dogs and social lives, maybe I should slow down and display the same sort of respect for this place as I would show if I was visiting someone’s home.”

As I left Beech Croft Road, passing the signs that read “Road Closed” and “Play Street,” I was struck by an interesting revelation. I had only seen Beech Croft Road as a community space that was closed to traffic. I had assumed that perhaps this was just the type of place were everyone hung out and talked to each other; invited you into their gardens for a cup of tea; pooled their toys so that visiting children could play in the street. But perhaps such forms of community behaviour are just much easier to achieve when our streets slow down and become spaces of shared endeavour.


More lexical nudges, and a clever waste bin

Why would you not recycle?  Fair to say that recycling has become a social norm – we are all expected to take personal responsibility for the future of the planet, and increasingly more of us do.  There are structures and services in place to make this easier – the black boxes provided for our recyclable detritus, can banks, bottle banks, clothes banks. And there are technologies which can help us to re-use our waste, for instance, paper log-makers which can turn waste paper into fuel.   In DEFRA’s (2008) A Framework for Pro-environmental Behaviours, these kind of provisions are summarised in the ‘4 E’s model’: Engage, Exemplify, Encourage, Enable.

But there are even more subtle, lexical nudges going on in the pursuit of pro-environmental behaviour change. This is a waste bin on our university campus. I don’t often go round taking photos of bins, but this one caught my attention.  It ostensibly gives you 3 choices: recycle your food and drink cans, recycle your bottles, or throw your rubbish away.  But the subtle undertone of this linguistically-savvy waste bin (the bin is also bilingual, reading ‘Your World, Your University/ Eich Byd, Eich Prifysgol in Welsh), is that the 3rd option is not marked something like ‘other waste’ but draws attention to where your wasteful, wasted waste will end up: in landfill. Now why would you not recycle in a context in which your choices have been edited in this way?


Big brother isn’t watching you…you are

speed activated signSpeed cameras, safety cameras, speed guns, camera vans – call them what you will. They are there to provide a disincentive and punishment for those motorists who break the speed limit.  The aim is to save lives, and managing speed is seen as the principal means by which to reduce road accidents and fatalities. Are they a new technology of libertarian paternalism?  A new breed of speed cameras called ‘speed activated signs’ aims to ‘help drivers choose appropriate speeds’ (DfT, 2000). These cameras reflect back to you how fast you are going, so that you (and the drivers behind you) can reconsider how fast you want to be driving.  ‘Do you really want to be going that fast?’ ‘Do you want everyone else to know that you’re breaking the limit?’

This soft paternalist intervention is not immediately punitive or harsh, but is part of a wider initiative to change public attitudes to speeding, and to dispel some of the myths surrounding speeding, which are key to the Department for Transport’s road safety strategy. Knowing that drivers are well-aware of the risks of speeding, potential fines and legal penalties, the task for the government of speed on the roads is to try to understand and intervene in people’s perceptions and motivations for speeding.  Encouraging slower speeds through canny urban design, hazard warnings and traffic calming are one way of shaping the way in which people drive. Another is the promotion of ‘smoother, more careful and less aggressive driving styles’, and rehabilitation courses for errant drivers who have been caught speeding.

Changing our relationship to cars is of course part of a wider set of strategies and initiatives prompting more environmental behaviours.  In this case, rather than protecting you directly from harm, speed activated signs seek to help you to protect yourself and others by encouraging you to slow down and think (or think and slow down).