How to go green without really trying

Simple ways to trick yourself into living sustainably

Even people who worry about climate change can find it hard to alter their behavior. Blame habit, or the fact that it is hard to see how your own small actions can have a global impact. Either way, you can’t stop a problem by doing nothing. Luckily, there are some simple ways to change your habits with minimal effort.

Take plastic shopping bags. In one recent study, Rebecca Taylor, a grad student at UC Berkeley, looked at cities and counties that have implemented bans on single-use plastic bags and tacked on small fees for paper or reusable bags. She found that not only did it reduce the use of plastic bags, it reduced disposable bag use overall. So it’s a win-win — and shoppers in places with plastic bag fees and bans have found it relatively easy to adapt.

We can’t all go out and change government policies, but these four simple psychological techniques can get you started making changes to your own behaviors.

Change once

Small changes you only have to make once and don’t have to think about again are known as convenience techniques. If you’re chronically late, you set your clocks five minutes ahead and voilà — you’re on time. This is where bags come in: Keep a few reusable shopping bags with you when you go to the grocery store, and it becomes second nature. For a bigger impact, replace old appliances with ones approved by the EPA’s Energy Star program. If you’re not ready to splurge on a new kitchen, set your thermostat a few degrees higher in the summer and lower in the winter — it not only reduces your carbon footprint, it’s an easy money saver.

Track yourself

Monitoring techniques are another easy way to make a change. Try keeping track of the energy you use when looking at your power bill, aiming for lower targets every month. Some utilities even have apps that allow you to monitor how much energy you’re using in real time on your smartphone. UCLA professor Magali Delmas and colleagues did a unique study to see whether people would use less energy if they could see how their usage compared to their neighbors. Sure enough, just that small amount of social pressure led to a 20 percent drop in energy use.

If everyone’s doing it, chances are it won’t feel hard, it’ll feel normal.

Know your impact

Knowledge is power, and knowledge about your power is doubly so. Informational techniques include tools and tricks that help you monitor your impact. When people are informed about the impact their actions have beyond themselves, they’re more likely to choose positive behaviors. For example, the average person in the United States contributes more than twice the amount of greenhouse gases as someone in Japan or Europe. Knowing that might inspire someone to find ways to cut back, not to name names… (cough, cough)

Get social

One of the major reasons people don’t change is because they feel their actions aren’t connected to the bigger picture (there’s an informational technique for you). But your own actions can help change minds about that. This is an example of a social psychological technique, which involves interacting with and influencing people.

If you make a change, your action can be contagious. Use one of the simple tricks above, and you might just inspire others to follow suit. You don’t have to invite people over to show them your new electric car — just by setting a good example, others might take notice. Help spread the word and you own small change can be much greater than yourself. Lauren Singer takes this approach on her website Trash is for Tossers, where she chronicles her own zero-waste journey through tips and videos. She has attracted a huge community of those who have been inspired to reduce their impact.

Little changes add up. Little changes that spread through social circles can add up to something big. And if everyone’s doing it, chances are it won’t feel hard, it’ll feel normal.

Single-use items are making the fight against climate change even harder, but it doesn't have to be that way. Watch this episode of Climate Lab to learn easy hacks to reduce and reuse.