Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults and decision-makers. And in this world in transition, they can shake things up from an early age, for example, by protecting our planet. How? Via the effect of proudly displaying the ‘eco-friendly’ label. UCLouvain researcher Karine Charry demonstrates that children described by others as eco-responsible adopt more spontaneously pro-environmental behaviours.
'You are someone who cares about the environment.’ Attributing this kind of social label to a person on the basis of their behaviour or prior statements can influence the way they consume. Experts have seen it. It’s been studied in adults, often in a very theoretical way. Analysing the effectiveness of an ‘eco-friendly’ label for children is an original approach. Children, however, are becoming increasingly autonomous in their consumer choices. They’re also exerting more influence on the behaviour of their family and boyfriends and girlfriends. ‘Qualifying children as “respectful of the planet” motivates them to act in favour of the environment,’ explains Prof. Charry of the Louvain Research Institute in Management and Organizations (LouRIM), author of a related article, in collaboration with CNRS researcher Béatrice Parguel, that was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. ‘Words alone can play a very important role, and sometimes be more engaging than coercive policies.'
Inspire a positive message
Their study is based on social labelling theory. Social labelling technique consists of emphasising personal qualities and values by ‘sticking’, for example, a positive label on the person in question in order to make that person behave a certain way. If the label is consistent with how individuals think of themselves and with their values, they integrate the personality traits valued as being their own. The behaviours they adopt will persist over time. And the clearer and more stable their perception of themselves, the less they’ll be a priori influenced by external pressures and the more effective labelling will be. Proper labelling is in fact not seen as attempting external influence. That this process, proven in adults, can be applied to children was the researchers’ hypothesis.
The weight of words
The experiment took place in three phases.
Phase one: Children aged 8 to 12 answered a wide-ranging questionnaire on their lifestyle. ‘The goal was to assess their predispositions in general, their behaviours and interests, but also their environmental awareness,’ Prof. Charry says. The researchers also gauged the children's perception of their own personality.
Phase two: Children were divided into two equivalent groups in terms of age, gender, socio-economic level and environmental awareness. One was called ‘eco-friendly’ and the other wasn’t called anything. ‘To the first group we said: “Thanks to the questionnaire completed last week, we learned a lot about you and found that each of you is a nature-conscious child. But we want to learn more about what excites you in life”,’ Prof. Charry explains. This is labelling. To the second group no allusion to the environment was made. Next, both groups answered a new questionnaire, and as a form of thanks each child received a notebook. They had two options to choose from: a well-known brand or an unbranded recycled notebook. ‘This is our behavioural measure: to identify whether the simple fact of having awarded this ‘eco-responsible’ label, of having emphasised this pro-environmental disposition, will encourage more children to choose the recycled notebook, which is an pro-environmental act.’ The result? Two-thirds of labelled children took the ‘green’ notebook, while only one-third of the unlabelled children did. ‘This result is very significant. What’s even more interesting is that children who have a good sense of their personality are the most likely to comply with the label.’
Phase three: measuring the clarity and stability of self-concept. The children answered questions that measured the stability over time of how they imagined themselves. ‘Those who have a very stable vision of themselves are the most impacted by the label. This is very empowering for us because individuals with strong identities are generally less responsive to traditional advertising messages, which are often based on social norms.’ Social labelling is therefore an effective tool for convincing children less susceptible to the influence of others to adopt environmentally friendly behaviours.
The results of this research have obvious societal implications and are essential for public decision makers and educators. The world is going through a period of ecological transition. Many realise this and want behaviours to change, such as companies that are changing their production methods and opting for an economy that is more respectful of the planet. This approach often comes at a significant financial cost and with human hardship. If children adopt a more environmentally responsible attitude from an early age, the responsibility will be less of a burden to them as adults. Thus the researchers advocate complementing educational and communication tools with social labelling – in schools, certainly, where teaching staff are giving it more attention, but also at home. Some parents encourage this process spontaneously by complimenting their children when they adopt eco-friendly behaviours. A simple compliment can effectively stimulate green consumer choices. Why not do it?