Going Green–Nudgingly

I spent this past Thanksgiving away from home, staying in a hotel for a few days.  Not being a name-dropper, let’s just leave it that this hotel was one of a well-known national chain.  I’ve done a fair amount of traveling in my life, stayed in many hotels and know enough to refuse the room that is next to or behind the elevator.  I’ve also seen many changes in hotel service over the years, some for the better, some not.

There was a card in my bathroom explaining the commitment on the part of this hotel chain to help protect the environment.  I’m sure you’ve seen them as well.  This recent practice asks us to reuse our towels rather than have them changed every day.  For the past few years we have become conditioned to hanging our towels on the rack if we are willing to reuse them, or leaving them on the floor if we are not.

This time it was different.  The card said that they will change towels and bed linens “as necessary or upon request.”  First, notice that bed linens are now included and, second, who decides what is necessary?  Apparently not me, because if I want fresh bed linens and towels I must now contact the hotel operator.

Nudge, nudge.  With one seemingly innocuous card, the system went from opt in to opt out; and also provided a real-life example of an economic theory.  The recent (2008) book, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discusses how small changes in a process can effect larger changes in human behavior and, by extension, economic decisions.  One of their more cited examples is the participation rate of employees in a 401(K) plan offered through their companies.  The difference in participation skyrockets when you are automatically enrolled in the plan with the right to opt out, as opposed to having to sign up for the plan, or opt in, of your own accord.

Clearly, someone in management at the hotel chain must have seen these results and decided to try to make it work for them.  It will be interesting to see how successful it is.  My bet is that it will be substantial, since the average person is possessed of great inertia and will avoid taking over the onus of proactivity.  Add to that the general feeling that a hotel exists to provide services for you, leaving you free to do other things; having to order clean towels is not among them.

All this raises the secondary issue of how far this will go.  If someone was prescient enough to notice the value of a nudge he or she may also look to the airlines and decide that unbundling services may increase revenue in the hotel business.  Despite all the grumbling about baggage fees, people are paying them.  Perhaps charging for clean towels and linens will be next.  Daily linen changes and fresh towels will be available for a small extra charge. Then what–soap and shampoo?  Hangers in the closet? Heat?

But for now, it seems that we have to go on the record if we want clean towels and bed linens every day.  Whether hotels are doing this out of concern for the environment as they claim, or to enhance their bottom lines, which it will, the issue is one of going green. To be sure, they are free-riding on the moral virtue of social conscious.  But let’s assume their motives are pure and that they truly care about the environment, not wanting to waste precious resources.  If so, then please fix the leaky faucet in the bathroom.


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