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Recycling and environmental protection – tapping to our cultural norms?

By Samuel Alemu

Climate change, resource depletion, environmental pollution – all these have become the buzzwords in the 21st-century discussion of environmental protection and sustainability. The world is facing challenging times trying to meet its resource and environmental needs. Population growth, consumerism, profitability, and customer-oriented attitudes – these factors create a unique environment, which justifies the importance of recycling and environmental protection but does not always make them an economically feasible option. Yet, even in the absence of immediate monetary incentives, certain countries still manage to adopt and sustain environment-friendly public attitudes. These differences among countries raise questions about the role which culture plays in promoting recycling and environmental protection behaviors.

Recycling is emerging as an opportunity to halt or at least slow down the pace of global environmental degradation. Despite numerous initiatives implemented worldwide, just a few countries have managed to create a culture of authentic sustainability and positive attitudes toward recycling and environmental protection. Needless to say, these are countries with high levels of socioeconomic well-being where residents have enough time and opportunity to devote to recycling. Some developing and emerging countries are also making considerable improvements in their environmental protection. In the meantime, other countries keep struggling to instill pro-environmental and recycling attitudes in their residents. These behavioral inequities suggest that the presence or absence of governmental (regulatory) levers is not a sufficient condition for achieving the desired levels of recycling. According to Moore and Boldero (2017), interventions that produce voluntary behavior change in citizens are gaining prominence in policy research and practice. Many of these interventions are culture-oriented. That is, they work to change the cultural norms pertaining to the recycling and environmental protection. Such norms create a situation, in which residents have but to comply with the recycling and environmental protection requirements; otherwise, they will lose their public status, face condemnation and judgments from their neighbors and coworkers, and experience social ostracization, beyond the financial and regulatory sanctions for non-compliance.

Consumer behaviors, whether they are related to recycling or any other public and social priorities, depend on personal and public values. Individuals who realize the inherent value of the environment are more likely to commit themselves to environmental protection and recycling (McCarthy & Shrum, 1994). Even in the absence of strong regulatory mechanisms, incentives to boost environmental protection and sanctions for non-compliance, cultural norms can successfully promote environment-friendly behaviors. Likewise, in societies where culture does not promote the value of environmental protection and recycling, even prominent sanctions and penalties will do little to enhance public attitudes toward environmental decision making. Crociata, Agovino, and Sacco (2015) write that “culture can play an important role in shaping up a collective identity within a community, thereby solidifying binding social ties and contributing to the enforcement of social norms” (p. 42). In this sense, recycling and environmental protection can be compared to a kind of cultural experience, and it is important to engage consumers in these experiential activities, thus empowering them to act in an environment-friendly manner.

Any attempt to promote recycling and environmental protection within and across countries is inevitably about tapping to cultural norms. The example of Japan says it all – a country that is well-known for its high environmental awareness is also a country where natural resources are severely limited, and recycling often becomes the only way to achieve sustainability and minimize the risks of resource depletion. Some Japanese residents are entitled to recycle their waste into ten or more categories. Should they refuse to do so, they would face a variety of cultural and social sanctions, from public judgment to eviction from their apartments (Rudel, 2015). School programs necessarily incorporate environmental education, which builds and sustains a culture of environmental protection and positive attitudes towards recycling. Many cities have their so-called “garbage guardians” – volunteers who inspect the way their neighbors and other community residents recycle waste (Rudel, 2015). All these actions and activities represent a logical extension of the environment-friendly cultural norms. Consequently, any attempt to create an environment for recycling and protection of limited resources should begin and end with culture.

Cultural norms represent the most potent antecedent of recycling and environment-friendly consumer behaviors. Residents in countries and cultures that promote the value of environmental protection are more likely to recycle their waste and use wise environment-friendly technologies to optimize their energy use and reduce environmental pollution. Countries that have yet to become energy efficient and environment-friendly should design cultural experiences and engage citizens in cultural activities toward redesigning and sustaining new cultural and environmental norms. School education is everything. Children who have experience participating in recycling activities are more likely to pressure their parents to recycle their garbage. Cultural activities for children and adults that advance their environmental awareness may further expand their cultural capital, which drives recycling behaviors and reinforces the presence of environmental, cultural norms in society. Community “watchdogs” can add weight to these environmental initiatives, creating a sense of visibility and transparency. As such, any act of environmental non-compliance will immediately become a subject of community discussions, discouraging citizens from violating these norms.

All in all, recycling and environmental protection tap to the society’s cultural norms. Communities that have a strong environmental commitment and promote environmental protection are more likely to have residents who recycle their garbage. Public condemnation and social ostracization are often the worst sanctions for households that fail to commit themselves to environmental protection. Societies that seek to improve their environmental situation should invest in cultural experiences and activities to build norms and values that will guide pro-environmental behaviors in citizens.

Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. He can be reached at [email protected] You can follow Samuel on twitter @salemu.