Do you make green choices for the environment? Watch out for a negative net effect

We can combat climate change with our own behaviour. The national government is therefore trying to encourage citizens to take action themselves and to become more sustainable. The ‘everyone is doing what’ campaign is a good example of this. The idea behind this campaign is: if we all take a small step to live a little more sustainably, together we can make a big positive impact. But is that really so? Or can asking for a small action for the environment lead to less sustainable behaviour?

The campaign ‘Everyone Does What‘ gives practical tips for a more sustainable life and also offers a ‘What can you do’ test. It seems like a good initiative. Many of the actions mentioned are small and easy to perform, such as encouraging the use of LED lights and healthy fruit and vegetable choices. Under the motto ‘every little bit helps’, we are working towards big results. But does that work?

Not always, according to various studies. Taking a small positive action for the climate can actually have a net negative effect on how sustainable we live. Cause? So-called ‘moral self-licensing’.

Moral self-licensing: compensating for good behavior with bad behavior

Moral self-licensing involves the following: you use the fact that you have done something good before as an excuse to behave less ethically or less well later on. Examples of moral self-licensing are:

  • You have installed solar panels and then worry less about your power consumption (which means that you ultimately use a lot more).
  • You do not drive a car and therefore think it is fine that you regularly travel by air.
  • In a sustainable clothing store you buy extra T-shirts that you don’t actually need, because you feel so good about buying things in a sustainable store.

Maybe you recognize yourself in these examples (I do!). You can probably now imagine that moral self-licensing can be problematic for making our society more sustainable. Moral self-licensing is especially a problem if we are going to use a very small positive action to justify a much larger negative action.

Is it wrong to ask for small actions?

If you’re reading this, it sounds like we’re not getting along very well with asking for small actions for the climate. However, in practice it is a bit more nuanced. After all, asking for a first (small) positive action also yields benefits.

First of all, you lower the threshold to do something for the climate with small and concrete actions. The government offers many concrete examples on the campaign website that are easy to implement and yield immediate results. In addition, a first small step can also lead to a next positive step (also called it spillover-effect). Or the first small step can be used as a stepping stone to participate in larger actions that follow (aka the ‘foot in the door’ technique).

For example: we first ask people to use LED lamps and then we will also encourage the use of solar panels. The essential question that must now be asked is: ‘How can we ensure that no moral compensatory behavior occurs, but that a first action for the climate leads to new actions?’

Ways to avoid moral compensatory behavior

There are various ways in which we can counter moral self-licensing and actually enhance positive spillover effects.

First of all, we can use our urge for a ‘consistent reputation’ towards the outside world. An example: suppose I proudly tell my neighbors that I have bought sustainable lamps for my entire house and garden, because I think it is important to make my home more sustainable. I have built a reputation towards the neighbors as a climate conscious person. Then of course I don’t want the neighbors to see that I’m wasting a lot of energy in other ways. Because then my reputation as a ‘sustainable person’ might be damaged.

We can make use of this in campaigns such as the ‘Everyone is doing what’ campaign. We can further motivate people motivated by affirming and maintaining a green reputation to remain consistent in their sustainable behavior by ensuring that they share their sustainable actions with those around them. So, for example, by encouraging people to share their actions on Instagram or Facebook. Or to put a sticker or poster on their window that shows that sustainability is important to them.

Photo with two sustainable actions.

Foot-in-the-door technique (FITD)

A second way to the moral licensing-effect to reduce is to link a green action to people their own identity. We also want to remain consistent with ourselves. You can respond to this by linking good behavior to people’s standards and values. For example: if someone buys solar panels, emphasize that sustainability is apparently important to that person, in order to build the identity of a ‘climate-conscious person’.

Finally, it can help to set sustainable actions as ‘the norm’ or ‘standard’. So:

  • serving standard vegetarian meals,
  • as an employer, offer a standard public transport allowance instead of providing a company car, or
  • sell sustainable products as standard.

This prevents people from continuing to see sustainable behavior as ‘special’ (and then compensating for this again.

From ‘everyone does what’, to ‘everyone does (quite) a lot’

Introducing sustainable behavior as the standard norm (to which unsustainable habits must give way) requires a different way of thinking from all of us: citizens, government and business. Let us therefore build on our joint identity as a sustainable society and take the step from ‘everyone is doing what’ to ‘everyone is doing (quite) a lot’. In order to really make a major impact on the climate in this way.


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