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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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The hospitality industry has attracted a lot of attention from consumers and other stakeholders like governments, societies and regulation bodies due to increased interest in eco-friendly travel and the nature of the hospitality products (Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius, 2008). The last few decades have seen an increased consumer demand for environmentally responsible lodging (Han, 2015). Considering that the modern-day consumer is becoming sensitive to ecological matters, reducing the environmental harms by use of green practices during daily hotel operations is vital to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace (Jones et. al, 2014). However, engaging the consumers in sustainable behaviors is a challenging task as it involves driving behavior change for no immediate monetary reward (e.g. recycling towel's during hotel stay). Policymakers have looked upon the concepts of psychology and behavioral economics to influence the behavior of an individual (consumer) in certain ways through the use of ‘nudges' (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). The existing studies in consumer behavior and environmental psychology have identified that eco-friendly behavior, eco-friendly reputation and practices, and environmental awareness are some of the underlying and structural concepts in categorizing the green consumer behavior (Paco and Raposo, 2009). Various theoretical frameworks and studies comprising these elements have long been believed to be necessary for studying green consumer behavior in different contexts (Han et. al, 2010; Hofmeister-Toth et al, 2011; Kim and Han, 2010; Matthies et .al, 2012; Roberts, 1996 cited in Han and Yoon, 2015). These models and studies have been framed on the basis of the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) and the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) (Paco et. al, 2018). The Theory of Reasoned Action explains the psychological and cognitive processes related to consumer decision making and the Theory of Planned Behavior deals with individual's behaviors and beliefs. Although, a marginal effort has been made to analyze and understand how these eco-friendly factors influence hotel guest's (green) decision making and behavior.  

The present study sought to examine the various concepts of behavioral economics related to the consumer behavior towards the green practices adopted by the hotel industry. Specifically, the study will look at behavior intentions, choice architecture and the role of guilt and descriptive norms and how they can be utilized better in influencing the decision making of the customer/guest while tackling the issue of consumer resistance towards the green practices. This study also looks at the approach of the hotel industry towards sustainability and the common practices undertaken to appeal as environmentally friendly.

• Eco-friendly practices of the hotel industry:

The concept of green consumers began in the 1990s since then consumers have been concerned about sustainable/environmental issues. This concern has also affected the lodging industry as hotels are mainly associated with excessive consumption of various natural resources. When this concept came into practice, hotels were majorly inclined towards it because of government regulations. However, due to increased consumer awareness, it has now become a daily practice for the lodging industry and is associated with product quality, employee morale and customer satisfaction (Lee et. al, 2010). This was proved by a study conducted by Accor Hotel Group and International Hotels Environment Initiative, where 90% of hotel guests stated that they would prefer to stay in a hotel who cares about sustainability. This has led to hotel firms increasingly investing in their green initiatives to attract the ‘eco-friendly' consumer. Corporates like IHG, Marriott, Hilton, and Radisson are launching brands and announcing environmental programs to appeal to the ‘green consumer', by doing this they are triggering the concept of distinction bias (giving them choices within wide range of products on the basis of green attributes; all serving the same purpose of accommodation during travel) within their target audience. For instance, Marriott's Savannah Harbor Resort in Georgia targets the consumer with features like eMenus, eProposals, and digital contracts to name a few, thus indirectly nudging them to make sustainable choices. They are providing options to the consumer on the basis of green attributes and comparisons with the ordinary hotels to gain the market share. Ordinary hotels do adopt various strategies on a daily basis like posting a signage of “reuse your towel” which guides the behavior of their daily guest but cannot influence the desired repeat business as it does form the sustainable ‘perception'. The hospitality industry is believed to be consuming a lot of natural resources like water, energy and other disposable products due to the nature of their services and products. However, a negative influence on the environment is not solely a hotel's fault as, this can be linked to the individual's behavior during the stay (Chen and Tung, 2014). Many hotels seek to make necessary improvements to their daily practices to dilute their environmental impact (Lee et. al, 2010). The example of some of the practices includes incorporating a herb garden on hotel's terrace's, sourcing local produce and recycling waste. Such practices not only help hotels increase their market share but also lower their operational costs by reducing the consumption of these resources (Manaktola and Jauhari, 2007). This also influences hotel rankings in various sustainability indexes and is exploited by marketers through effective promotion (depicting their LEED certification and installation of low-flow showerheads and sink aerators) by appealing to the system-1 thinking of the consumer (emotional and high involvement), which in turn enhances their firm's profit and promotes customer retention. Marketers can further exploit this by appealing to the ‘hot mental state' of the consumer by tailoring their green practices/products in relation to the environmental cause and thus can increase their brand equity.

• Behavior Intentions:

The behavior intentions have always been central to consumer's decision-making process. Ajzen & Fishbein (1980), came up with the theory of reasoned action (TRA) which has been used widely to predict behavioral intentions of consumers in the field of marketing (Lam & Hsu, 2004). As per this theory, behavioral intention is based upon subjective norms and attitude towards performing a certain behavior (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). This theory has been used widely, however, some academics questions the applicability of TRA because, behavior intention of a consumer can be influenced by non-volitional factors like available resources under specific circumstances (Park, 2003). This limitation led the way for the development of the theory of planned behavior (TPB) which is an extension of the theory of reasoned action and is one of the most popular social-psychological model for analyzing consumer behavior (Ajzen, 2015). The theory of planned behavior widens the horizon of the theory of reasoned action and includes behavioral control as an additional dimension to determine the behavioral intention (Ajzen, 1992). The use of TPB is more influential while dealing with the behavioral intention of a hotel guest. For instance, while deciding to stay in a “green hotel” the decision making might be affected by the price on offer. The consumer may have a positive attitude and pressure of social norms to perform the desired behavior but may not be able to achieve the same due to price constraints. An illustration of the TPB is depicted below in figure 1:

Fig.1. The theory of planned behavior.

Source: Ajzen (2015).

Ajzen's 2015 study on the theory of planned behavior highlights, the role of feedback which influences intentions and future behavior. Feedback plays a vital role by impacting the patterned behavior intention and this can be related to the concept of system – 2 thinking, as feedback is received over a period of time and guides the future behavior. In contrast, Kaiser (2006) states that TPB neglects the role of moral dimension while addressing the issue of sustainable behavior. Re-use of towel or consumption of local produce while dining in a hotel are moral obligations of an individual and are formed by social influences. While these two theories (TRA and TPB) have significantly explained the behavior intentions of the consumer, however, they do not address the role of empathy and motivation while making choices. For example, empathy may be triggered while promoting the ‘green hotels' during advertising which can lead to people shifting their preferences and help the noble cause of environment conservation. Empathy can shift the system – 1 central impulse to social concern and can be used effectively by showing the consumers the negative effect of certain products. Similarly, social norms can motivate an individual rather than pressuring him/her so as to follow the behaviors of the ‘significant other'.

• The role of choice-architecture on green practices of the hotel industry:

The role of choice-architecture or defaults has been influential in various contexts and has proved disruptive in relation to the hospitality industry. Choice-architecture is present in daily life and influences what decisions are made (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). Current studies on cause-related marketing provide a range of evidence regarding the role of defaults on consumer behavior (Theotokis and Manganari, 2015). The literature suggests that the default option is easier and effortless to be selected (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). Furthermore, opt-in and opt-out have been identified as two main default policies. In the ‘opt-in' option consumer choices are presumed and the consumer is assigned the default option. In contrast, in the ‘opt-out' option consumer choices are considered obvious and they need to state their option. For instance, hotels place placards in guest rooms notifying them about the re-use of towels and linen (i.e. opt-out). Similarly, they present you with the hard copy of the bills unless requested for an electronic version (i.e. opt-in). The consumer tends to be myopic and prefers immediate outcomes/rewards, however, the choices made for sustainability yields results over a period of time. There are various tools available for marketers to address these issues, for instance, Weber et. al (2007), highlights that delaying options can shift the focus of decision-maker towards making more patient choices. Similarly, less choice deferral and high satisfaction can be achieved by considering the second-best option (Shu, 2008). For instance, if a new hotel is not able to achieve the desired LEED status due to budget constraint, it can still attract consumers by offering them choices in food-menu (locally sourced produce) and saving water through recycling.

One factor which is still unexplored while understanding consumer behavior towards green practices of the hotel industry is guilt, past studies have highlighted how guilt can influence the consumer behavior within choice architecture. For example, the research conducted by Theotokis and Manganari (2015), highlights the role of anticipated guilt while evaluating the role of default policies in influencing consumer behavior towards green practices. Their survey on 118 postgraduate students claims that defaults shape consumer decision and anticipated guilt can be used as a mechanism to explain the response to defaults by the individuals. This can be attributed to the fact that, defaults are considered as ‘legitimate choice' or ‘automatic' (Brown and Krishna, 2004). While this study is dominated by defaults and anticipated guilt, it does not clearly highlight the role of nudge which can be used to influence people's decision making. Also, the sample of 118 postgraduate students doesn't seem to be appropriate for a study focused on sustainable consumer behavior, there seems to be a bias towards the results.

Marketers must use choice-architecture designed in such a way that it harmonizes with the consumer needs and intuitions (Myrseth, 2018). This can be achieved by the reduced number of alternatives, partitioning of options, customized information and focusing on experience. The use of these have been effectively explained by various academics and can be proved influential while designing the choice architecture for the green practice of the lodging industry. Figure 2 below summarizes some of the tools which are effective while designing the choice architecture:

Fig.2. Tools in choice architecture.

Source: Johnson et. al, (2012).

• The effect of descriptive norms:

Previous research indicates that social norms influence consumer behavior directly (Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius, 2008). Past studies have highlighted that social norms tend to remind people about socially acceptable behaviors (Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren 1990). This implies that social norms do act as an important factor in promoting environmentally friendly behavior.  As social norms are not formed directly, they tend to develop organically over a certain period of time and vary depending on the culture/community. As a result of this, prior literature has focused on the use of descriptive norms in the context of sustainability (e.g., Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren 1990; Reno, Cialdini, and Kallgren 1993). Furthermore, findings demonstrate that descriptive norms produce significant changes in consumer behavior (e.g. Cialdini 2003 and Fornara et. al, 2011 cited in Ryoo et. al, 2017).

During the study of hotel towel reuse Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius (2008), segregated descriptive norms into two categories: a. general and b. provincial based on their reference groups. Their study highlighted that, consumers were inclined towards towel reuse if, they were informed that majority of guests in the same room are doing so (i.e. provincial norms) as compared to all the hotel guests did so (i.e. general norms). Their result reported that provincial norms were more influential than general norms. Many pieces of research and studies have documented this effect (superiority of provincial norms) however, there is very little evidence highlighting what drives this effect of provincial norms. A study of 148 participants was undertaken by Ryoo et. al (2017) to understand the influence of provincial norms. Their results established the superiority of the provincial norms over general norms, but they also reported that consumer behavior can be hindered depending on the construal message.

The speculations of academics on the process can be summarized as follows: as the norms are developed over time, consumers may overgeneralize them, perceiving provincial norms as more appropriate for behavior prediction as compared to general norms. Similarly, there may be some irrelevant similarities which are believed to be at a higher magnitude, driving people to change their behavior in conformity with others (e.g. Bohner and Schluter 2014; Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius 2008).

There have been certain limitations of these explanations as they are based on interpretations and assumptions which have not been tested empirically. Previous research has shown that participation in the same surroundings, even with unknown people, may be an influential factor driving the provincial norms. With the focus on influencing sustainable behavior, social norms nudging has been found to be most effective.

• Conclusion:

The growing awareness regarding environmental sustainability has affected consumer behaviors and has led to organizations adapting to these changes; the lodging industry is one such example. This study looked at behavior intentions, choice-architecture and descriptive norms as factors influencing consumer behavior towards green initiatives of the hotel industry. This study looked at the psychology of the consumers while they are nudged into certain behaviors while staying in a hotel (e.g. reuse of towels). This study also explored the various tools which can be used by marketers to further exploit consumer behavior choices and how those choices are influenced by the significant other while making decisions. With the ever-growing concern of sustainability and the role of the lodging industry practices, this study contributes by analyzing the past research in this field and by proposing how different concepts of consumer behavior can be utilized in further enhancing the image of the hotel industry.

There are certain limitations of this study, for instance, the focus was on previous research and no field experiment was conducted to test the hypotheses or the results. This study is based on the major work in the field of sustainable behavior of the consumer in different industries but not specifically the lodging industry. Another important factor this study does not intensely address is the role of ‘nudges' which are present in everyday life and shape decisions. There are certain studies on the concept of nudges and how it influences decision making within the lodging industry, hence this study focused on other aspects which are under-developed.

Future research should be conducted to further analyze and deepen the understanding of consumer behavior patterns towards the environmentally friendly initiatives of the hotel business. One significant aspect of consumer behavior which should further be explored is ‘empathy' and it can help in developing a framework for understanding the consumer psychology while making decision about the sustainable practices of the hotel industry.

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