March 30, 2020 The Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire

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Sustainable Behavior Change Campaigns: Messy, Complex, Critical

The job of a sustainable behavior practitioner is to help people see the bigger picture, and make the arguments about sustainability that an appeal to their wallet cannot do.


Dr. Adam Corner

Increasingly, companies are realising that sustainability means more than implementing a few more rules, regulations and benchmarks – it means engaging directly with the question of human behaviour.

Whether it is the actions of their customers – playing more and more of a role in whether particular products can achieve their sustainability potential – or employees themselves, many businesses are starting to ask how they can influence behaviour in a sustainable direction.    

Awareness & Facts: Not Enough in Sustainability

At first, it was assumed that once people knew how environmentally damaging their actions were, they'd soon start making changes. Unfortunately, sustainable behaviour campaigns require more than just a clever campaign slogan and clear facts to succeed. Many sustainability initiatives over the past 20 years have targeted low-hanging fruit – so-called "simple and painless" behaviour changes like unplugging phone chargers, switching to energy-saving light-bulbs, or re-using plastic bags.

But there is only limited evidence that starting with simple and painless changes is the best way of catalysing further changes – and there is a risk that people will feel they have already done their bit.

So what should we be doing instead?

Developing a Sense of Environmental Identity

First and foremost, individuals – and individual behaviours – cannot be separated from their social context. We act according to our personal values and priorities and in line with the social norms of our Promoting Sustainable Behaviour: A Practical Guide to What Workspeer group. The key to promoting meaningful changes in sustainable behaviour – that do more than just pay lip service to tackling climate change – is to nurture and develop a sense of environmental identity or citizenship.

When a person acts in his/her self-interest, that person will perceive themselves as someone who does things for their own benefit. They will only engage in further sustainable behaviours if there is something in it for them – so as soon as the 'sweeteners' dry up, so will their interest in sustainability.

But if people begin to think of themselves as someone who does things for the environment, the chance that they will engage in other sustainable behaviours is much higher.

It may not always be the quickest way of promoting a specific sustainable behaviour, but ultimately people can figure out for themselves whether something is in their own interest or not. The job of a sustainable behavior practitioner is to help them see the bigger picture, and make the arguments about sustainability that an appeal to their wallet cannot do.

Looking for Leadership: Building on the Power of Social

A huge amount of everyday energy use is embedded in habitual behaviors. The problem is that something seemingly straightforward like getting the bus to work is actually made up of lots of smaller (habitual) decisions, for example, leaving home earlier or showering the night before to save time, all of which can derail even the best intentions. Research on how habits form (and how they change), shows that breaking habitual behaviours down into detailed "if/then" style plans is one way to break bad habits and create more sustainable ones.

Editor's Note: Want to win one of the DoShorts titles? Have a look around the series and tweet your idea for a new @DoShorts topic using hashtag #suggestadoshort to @CSRwire!

But even the best-designed campaign to promote sustainable behaviour is limited in its scope if it fails to link everyday behaviours to the wider challenges of sustainability. Most people do not have a social network with sustainability at its core, but working to develop a group – rather than individual – sense of environmental responsibility and identity should be at the heart of any sustainability campaign.

Similarly, for those who are trying to promote sustainable behaviour in the workplace, there is an obvious place that most employees would look to for leadership: their employer. Changes in personal power of social networksbehaviours among workers can catalyse further changes from an employer because the argument that "we've done our bit – now you do yours" is a powerful one.

The Politics of Sustainability

Cultivating reciprocal links like these – between staff and employer, or between members of a social network – is one of the ways to ensure that promoting sustainable behaviour isn't detached from the politics of sustainability. How people act says something about their underlying values, the priorities they hold, and the type of world they want to live in.

So although engaging with employee and customer behaviour is a messier, more complex and more time-intensive way of thinking about sustainability, it is ultimately the only way that substantial progress in CSR is likely to be achieved.

It would be nice if it were possible to wave a magic low-carbon wand, and create zero carbon buses, energy efficient building and a power supply that came from clean renewables rather than dirty fossil fuels. But even if this wand did exist, it would be waved by a person as susceptible to the quirks, biases, and pitfalls of human judgement as the rest of us.

The reality is that human behaviour underpins it all. And this means that promoting sustainable behaviour in the most effective way is an absolutely critical part of society's response to climate change.

Editor's Note: Want to win one of the DoShorts titles? Have a  look around the series and tweet your idea for a new @DoShorts topic using hashtag #suggestadoshort to @CSRwire!

About the Author:

Dr Adam Corner (@AJcorner) is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on the psychology of communicating climate change. He leads the Talking Climate programme for the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and is a Research Associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.

This article draws on Adam Corner's book Promoting Sustainable Behaviour: A Practical Guide to What Works -- part of Dō Sustainability's new DōShort series of concise, sustainable business books for professionals. These practical books support professionals in the vanguard of sustainable business -- who are often forging new paths in their organizations -- by giving them the confidence, information and tactics they need at every stage of their career.

CSRwire Discount: For 10% off the RRP of any DōShort title, use code CSR10 at checkout when you order from Currencies will be converted, and orders can be fulfilled immediately, anywhere in the world.

Subscriptions: You can also get access to the entire DōShorts Collection via a personal or corporate subscription. Read more about subscriptions here.

Queries? If you would like to contact Adam Corner or find out more about the DōShorts series, email or visit

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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