Environment + Climate

Q&A with Magali Delmas on what really motivates green behavior

It’s not altruism, says UCLA environmental professor Magali Delmas

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Magali Delmas
UCLA

Magali Delmas, a UCLA professor in the Anderson School of Management and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, studies why governments, corporations, workers and consumers adopt green behaviors.

The new AirForU app UCLA professor Magali Delmas and her colleagues produced and announced on Friday has obvious appeal — find out the day's air quality as easily as you can find out the weather. 

Not so obvious: Personal and family health might also turn out to be much bigger motivators of pro-environmental behaviors than saving money — or even concern about the environment itself.

News to environmentalists, perhaps. But it's a trend Delmas, a professor in UCLA's Anderson School of Management as well as the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has been tracking for some time as part of her research into why governments, corporations, workers and consumers engage in green behaviors — or not.

We asked Delmas why environmentalism isn't about altruism and why she thinks employees and consumers — not corporations — are where really interesting research into sustainability behaviors is at these days.

We don't buy green because of the environment, do we? That's one of the upshots of your research over the last decade on motivators for green behavior.
Right. Altruistic consumers and people who really care about the environment for the environment are a very tiny minority. Most of us will purchase green products because we want to get something else out of it — something more important to us such as health, higher quality, convenience, functionality or status.

How does health rank on that list?
More and more when I look at successful green products in the marketplace, better health is a big driver for that success. We see that very clearly when people are interviewed about why they're purchasing organic products — the lack of chemicals, a perception of better nutrients.

But even with behaviors like energy conservation, where it's not obvious to make the link, we still found that people responded to health concerns more over time than to the prospect of saving money. That's why I wanted to investigate it further in different contexts, like with the AirForU app, as a motivator for green behaviors. People think about their health more than anything.

Even cost?
In surveys, cost and health are the two things people say they care about. But with household energy, it's work to unplug or turn off your air conditioning or your heating, and the savings turn out to be very, very small.

The average participant in our energy conservation experiment could only save $5 a month, even if they became the most energy-efficient they could be. We gave them an annual number instead, to make it bigger — but the participants didn't care. They basically said: "Yes, we care about this, but we can actually increase our consumption and it doesn't really matter. Let's just splurge."

The health and energy link surprised us because we know that electricity is not produced where you consume it. What worked in our message is that we very directly connected air pollution tied to electricity production with childhood asthma and cancer. It might have been a connection that they hadn't made otherwise.

That connection even worked in India, which surprised us — we got the same results as we did in Los Angeles. Electricity there is a little bit more expensive than in the U.S., but not enough for people to care, it turns out.

Are businesses taking advantage of this knowledge?
Not as much as they could. Industry tells people about the impact of their purchase on the environment — sometimes well, sometimes not. But it generally doesn't frame that messaging around personal impacts such as health. That's a lost opportunity.

In the energy study, and now with the AirForU app, you're testing real-time decisions by people. They see a number — energy consumption, air quality — and they respond to it and report that response to you. How important is that "now" time frame for driving green behaviors?
The research suggests that the closer we can get information to our decision points, the more it will impact those decisions. When I don't wear a seat belt in my car, an alarm goes off immediately, reminding me to do it. But when you get a monthly electricity bill, it's really hard for you to relate that to what turning off this computer or those appliances might mean. We need to bridge that gap.

We also think it's just as important to provide information at a frequency high enough to match the repeated decisions we make every day about energy conservation or our behavior in response to air pollution. Providing the information once doesn't mean it will stick. So making the information available at the point of the decision and repeating it frequently are two important mechanisms.

How does that work with the AirForU app?
It's updated approximately every hour. We also provide historical data from last week and a forecast for tomorrow. It gives people a context to make a decision about tomorrow and potentially avoid outdoor exercise.

Who can use it?
Everyone in the United States can use it for free. It's based on U.S. data taken from local air pollution agency monitors, coordinated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Our partnership with UCLA Health provides a connection with their patients with asthma. We'd love to build partnerships with other hospitals for the app in other places — we want to reach as many people as possible. Eventually we'd like it to reach other countries, depending on funding — India, where air pollution is very bad and information on it is poor, and maybe Europe.

You began your career focused on the way environmental policy and business strategy impact and influence each other. Now it seems as if you're in a different place — looking at individual behavior and not just what to do, but how to get people to do it.
You're right. I have evolved. I used to look at very natural drivers of green behavior — the external environment, the regulatory environment, and looking even at international comparisons. We had hopes to change the way firms would behave environmentally. And they have, in some ways, improved tremendously in the last 20 years.

But I think the next frontier is really about the employee. We need to make sure that it's not just the CEO who's making these changes, but that all of us, as employees, understand what's going on within the firm and innovate, as well as in our lives as a whole. These are the people who are actually making decisions within a firm, as well as consumers, and how they make those decisions has been so understudied.

So I've kind of moved from the macro to the micro, and I find this really more interesting. For instance, we're looking at how green practices have impacted employee productivity. Employees in green firms also tend to be less stressed, happier. So we're looking more at emotions and individual behavior and how those impact competitiveness.

In the end, firms respond to stakeholders. They respond to regulators as well, of course; but honestly, on the regulatory side, not much has happened — in my opinion, anyway — in the last 20 years. We tried to see how changing incentives and voluntary approaches could work for green actions, and this has not shown to be as promising as we thought.

So market drivers are really important. This is why I'm looking more at the individual consumer level and the individual level within the firm.

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