Designing sustainable behaviours

Josefine Nilsson Business Designer, Solita

Published 21 Mar 2024

Reading time 5 min

Why sustainable behaviours matter

In a world increasingly struggling with the consequences of climate change, the urgency to adopt sustainable practices has never been more pressing. With novel technologies that help innovative new digital services and with regulations like the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) coming into effect, companies and organisations find themselves compelled to invest in sustainable practices like never before. But this shift isn’t just a corporate mandate; it’s a societal imperative that requires changes at both organisational and individual levels.

As the global population is surpassing 8 billion people and continues to rise, individual actions will play an increasingly important role, and businesses can help influence positive behavioural changes by understanding fundamental aspects of human behaviour. So how can psychological mechanisms and interventions help design sustainable behaviours?

Three strategies for designing sustainable behaviours

To be able to design new behaviours, we initially need to understand what hinders people from engaging in sustainable behaviours and what benefits we can help them realise. Depending on which behavioural barriers and benefits we want to target, there are different strategies to adopt.

1. Make people commit to sustainable behaviours

Sometimes we want to act sustainably, but still don’t do it. When attitudes don’t match behaviour, we can help people commit to sustainable behaviours. Research indicates that agreeing to a small initial request significantly increases the likelihood of agreeing to a subsequent larger request. For instance, consider committing to watching someone’s belongings at the beach. Studies on sunbathers revealed that those who made this small commitment were much more willing to pursue a thief, if necessary, compared to those who hadn’t committed. Individuals tend to stick to behaviours that they have committed to, especially when done publicly, as it alters the way they perceive themselves. This is because we want to be perceived as consistent and reliable.

In Canada, there was a campaign aimed to reduce engine idling time to decrease air pollution. In the first trial, signs simply instructed people to turn off their engines due to cost and inefficiency. In the second trial, they added personal messages highlighting the environmental impact of idling and distributed stickers that were attached to the windscreen of the cars as prompts for the drivers to turn their engines off. This small commitment led to a 73% increase in engine shutdowns. A public commitment can serve as a powerful motivator driving individuals to follow through on their promises and actively engage in sustainable practices.

2. Spread sustainable behaviours with social norms and social diffusion

Humans are social creatures. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fear of being left out of social groups is astonishingly large to human beings. That’s why social norms and social diffusion are so powerful when nudging individuals towards sustainable behaviours.

In one experiment by Solomon Asch, a pioneer in social psychology, visual discrimination was examined by asking participants in a group setting to select which line is equal to “X” in length. Initially, everyone correctly identified the line equally long as X. But when some of the actors in the group started giving incorrect answers, 75% of participants altered their responses to align with the group’s incorrect answers. However, when participants completed the tests individually, they answered 99% of the questions correctly. 

Picture inspired by Solomon Asch’s experiment X

Picture inspired by Solomon Asch’s experiment

Individuals often conform to the actions of their peers. Hence highlighting for instance the growing number of employees that use e.g. public transportation or other environmentally friendly commuting habits can increase the likelihood of other people adopting the same behaviours. This effect is particularly strong when coupled with the commitment strategy. Rather than solely informing about the benefits of public transportation, it would be beneficial to encourage employees to actively share their experiences and advocate for it as a personal pledge.

3. Simplify making the right decision with convenience

Ultimately, in a world of endless decisions to be made, we want to make it easy for people to make the right decisions. Recognising that people tend to avoid actions that are perceived as unpleasant or time-consuming, we can leverage this insight to discourage undesired behaviours while promoting sustainability through desirable behaviours.

For instance, promoting the use of bicycles over cars could be facilitated by investing in dedicated bicycle paths. However, in cases where budget constraints are a concern, an alternative approach could involve reducing the convenience of driving a car. This could be achieved by reallocating road lanes to prioritise public transportation and carpooling, thereby discouraging single-occupancy car trips.

It is further widely acknowledged that a “take-make-waste” economy where we extract resources, produce items that we use for a short period of time, and then generate waste is unsustainable. Digital transformation enables new services and business models. For example, companies can help individuals change their purchasing habits by simplifying for communities to own products together, and by making it easy and attractive to rent services instead of buying new products. What if the default option would be renting rather than buying? In this way, not only are we designing new services but also innovative new business models that contribute to a larger circular transition.

To sum up

Integrating insights from psychology and behavioural design into sustainability initiatives is crucial for driving meaningful change. By understanding human behaviour, organisations can design strategies that effectively promote sustainable actions. In essence, through collective action and a nuanced understanding of behaviour, we can transform our planet towards a more sustainable future.

Curious about behavioural design? We’re happy to help!

Our design community of almost 200 experienced professionals spanning across research, insights, business transformation and data strategy will happily support you through the journey for change. We use service design methods to create sustainable service concepts with a combination of deep knowledge of human behaviour and business value to create impact that lasts.  

Inspired by Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book “Fostering sustainable behaviour: An introduction to community-based social marketing”.

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