Many of us would like to live more sustainably, but that can be easier said than done.
While many of us would like to live more sustainably, it is not always easy and the three-planets lifestyle of many Europeans is a stark prove to this. Thus, if living greener is something you’d like to try or improve on, here comes a cheat sheet on making your journey of behavioral change smooth and effective. And, in case you are already experienced in sustainability, this might help you to engage reluctant friends, consumers or members of the wider community.
Scientists and marketing experts have been working for decades on how to make people behave with more respect towards nature. They have tried everything, from highlighting health benefits and using images of vanishing species to nudging consumer choices and gamification. Some of these approaches have been more successful than others and now we have a great deal of evidence on how to actually help people make more sustainable choices.
Any behavioral change is a process, which often beings from knowing almost nothing about the practice, and can transition into rejection, partial adoption or long-term maintenance of the behavior as something obvious and natural. Achieving the third result is not easy so it is good to get things right from the start.
It is best to start from understanding the social context and goals you are up to. For if you do not recycle food scraps, it doesn’t mean you don’t care about nature. It may just mean that you are in a context where this particular activity is not a norm yet. Thus, it is useful to explore the social conditions in which change shall take place and understand the basic norms that surround the behavior. In respect to goals, it is also crucial to specify the baseline, desired outcome and decide how you measure the progress.
While exploring the context, you will need to clearly identify the segment of population you want to influence that has clear shared characteristics. Are you in collectivist or individualistic setting, what is the average age and what the interests and dislikes the group shares? Might they be conservative, or vice versa – avoid conservative choices whenever possible?
Understanding these factors makes it easier to achieve desired outcomes, as through working with norms of the group you are more likely to achieve individual change as well. For example you want to influence a group of students in university and nudge them to buy more organic food in the cafeteria. Think about motivations those people might share, what are their pains and how might the behavior help resolve them? Are they concerned with health? What are the messages that this group will be more likely to hear? Try to map out the relevant characteristics of the group as deeply as possible, as this will be crucial for the next step – the barriers.
Every behavior will always face some unfavourable factors. We might not recycle because we have not been taught to do so from early childhood or because the collection system is not in place or even because our spouse has subverted the behaviour when we first tried it. Find out barriers that keep people from engaging with the behavior and try to remove all that you can have impacts on. If the barrier is too is hard to deal with, think if you can create a small setting where its impact will be negligible or how you can engage people to resolve the barriers on their own.
When done with the barriers, it is time to think about the framing and the most important notion here is tangibility. The message should clearly state the benefits that speak to both shared and individual values, are concrete, easy to understand and not hidden in some distant future. Think of why the behavior might been seen as valuable, useful and desirable for the group you speak to, how you can positively surprise them while avoiding shock? Most importantly, seek to evoke positive emotions and focus on the opportunities, rather than focusing mostly on gloomy perspectives of the future apocalypses. People around the world are experiencing apocalypse fatigue, and while being true about matters of dangers it is best to focus on solutions that can ignite people to join and tell them a story of a better future..
It also matters to minimise compromise people might face and avoid attacking personal identity, that is the basic ideas about notions like good life, family and home, which may lead to cognitive dissonance and denial. The more consistent the behavior is with the person’s self-concept, the more likely they will embrace it. To further understand the barriers and how to tackle them with the right delivery check the TED talk by Per Espen Stoknes on the psychology of climate action.
Next, to actually start the process of change you will need something called discontinuity – a moment of instability that opens window for change – a broken car, power shortage or even coming back from the holiday. Such moments allow to unfreeze old habitual patterns, and replace old practice with a new one. When suggesting the new behavior avoid unnecessary cognitive burden – overloading people with information that will distract them rather than help. Usually the more intuitive certain action feels and the better it falls with person’s usual routines – the easier it sticks.
People make choices keeping in mind what others might think of them, give them opportunity to demonstrate their sustainable behaviors to others and make sure good feedback and rewards are also in place. Bottle arcades and thankful dumpsters are among the best examples of this. At last, support the behavior with unobtrusive prompts near the places it usually takes place until the behavior becomes automatic. As you achieve the desired outcome – analyse the results and consider lessons learned, and, finally, come up with some good reward for yourself.
Now, congratulations, you’ve just achieved and effective behavioral change, at least in theory. But on paper it will always stay someone else’s experience. So try the ideas explored here in real life and see how they work for you.
Meanwhile, these are just some basics to start with. If you serious about change, among the best places to dive deeper is SHIFT framework for behavioral change by SITRA, which explores the above-mentioned factors in detail and has a workbook for step by step action. Also make sure to check out the How Change Happens book by Duncan Green from Oxfam as well as the recent online course based on the book. And if you want to go even further – look into The Future of Sustainable Marketing by Friends of Earth to explore some deeper ways marketing can support change for a more sustainble future.
Last but not least, even with the best intentions and maximum effort, it might be hard to achieve desired results in all spheres. Thus, if you are about promoting sustainable lifestyles in general – it is worth focusing on practices that bring the greatest outcome with the least effort. For example, in regards to climate among the most important choices are going car-free, switching to renewable energy and choosing to fly less. And to decrease waste the best starting point is to start composting organics and learn a few key zero waste habits. So it is for almost any other sustainability issue – few behaviors make the biggest impact. Look for those, use some advice from above and at some point you might find sustainability a surprisingly natural part of you life.