Behaviour Change for Sustainable Development
Human impact on the planet is intensifying due to rapid globalization, economic and population growth, and changing lifestyles. In addition to technical and regulatory solutions, sustainable development must include a transformation of human consumption behaviors.
Human effects on the environment are so significant that some scholars propose we have entered a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, where humans are now the dominant driver of earth system processes at a planetary scale (Steffen et al. 2011). Climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and ocean acidification are undoubtedly caused and accelerated by unsustainable human activity. While humans throughout history have modified the natural environment to meet their needs, human impact on the planet is now exponentially greater due to rapid globalization, economic and population growth, and changing lifestyles (IPCC 2014). Current demands on Earth’s resources far outpace what the planet can produce, absorb, and neutralize, leading to widespread environmental depletion and degradation (UNDP 2012).
An increased awareness of the scale and scope of human impact on the planet has led to international efforts to curb environmental degradation and promote sustainable development. Policies and regulations, technical solutions, international agreements, economic tools, and informational tools have been applied to facilitate transitions towards sustainability. While regulatory and technical solutions have been beneficial in addressing significant cases of environmental pollution (e.g., regulations on CFC emissions and DDT pesticides), widespread environmental destruction continues due to unsustainable and intensifying human consumption behavior (Steg and Vlek 2009).
Given the magnitude of today’s environmental challenges, sustainable development must include human dimensions of change, specifically behavior change for sustainable development. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, there has been increased focus on the role of individual consumption patterns and production systems for sustainability. Achieving the sustainable development goals requires a critical understanding of “how people make decisions and act on them, how they think about, influence, and relate to one another, and how they develop beliefs and attitudes” (UNDP 2016, pp. 1–2).
Behavioral science theories and behavior change tools inform the creation of behavior change interventions for sustainable development. Such interventions are “coordinated sets of activities designed to change specified behavior patterns” (Michie et al. 2011, p. 1) and can focus on increasing, decreasing, or maintaining behaviors, as well as enhancing or improving behaviors (Morra Imas and Rist 2009).
This article addresses three main elements of behavior change for sustainable development: theories and models of human behavior and behavior change, behavior change intervention tools and methodologies, and selected examples of successfully implemented behavior change interventions. The article ends with a brief discussion of critiques of the behavior change approach and conclusions.
Understanding the Need for Sustainability
The impact of individual consumption behaviors can be traced to increasing demands for natural products and services such as food, water, timber, minerals, and fuel. The intensity of resource use and environmental degradation is responsible for fundamentally and irreversibly changing the planet. Household consumption contributes to more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50% and 80% of total land, material, and water use (Ivanova et al. 2016). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that one-third (~1.5 billion tonnes) of all food produced for human consumption in the world is wasted (FAO 2013). Moreover, water demand will surpass supply by 40% within 15 years as populations and demands on resources increase (UNEP 2017).
Curbing unsustainable behavior can reduce the acceleration of environmental degradation and contribute to sustainable development. For instance, the adoption of sustainable energy behaviors has the potential to reduce US household direct emissions by 20% (Dietz et al. 2009) and transitions towards environmentally sustainable diets could reduce food-related GHG emissions by 29–70% (Springmann et al. 2016).
An understanding of the impact of human activity on the planet gave way to programs designed to shift human impact through behavior change. Many of these programs relied on theories of human behavior and behavior change to inform the structure and aim of the program and to effectively target behaviors.
Theoretical Approaches to Behavior Change
This section gives an overview of theories and models on behavior and behavior change relating to pro-environmental behavior. The first group of theories explains behavior as a result of individual motivational factors, the second group includes contextual factors to explain behavior, and the third group explains permanent behavior change.
Behavior Theories and Models Focusing on Motivational Factors
The roots of many human behavior modelling approaches lie within economic theory and the assumption that human decisions are a result of a rational consideration of available alternatives to increase benefits and reduce costs (e.g. Consumer Preference Theory). Behavioral economists, such as Simon (1982) and Tversky and Kahneman (1992), have shown that behavior is not necessarily rational, by revealing how mental heuristics and cognitive biases often make choices predictably irrational (e.g., Prospect Theory and Bounded Rationality Theory).
Specific concepts, such as information, values, beliefs, attitudes, norms, and agency, have played an important role in social-psychological behavior theory. The concepts of attitudes, social norms, and agency informed Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) (1991), which is the most used theoretical framework in environmental behavior research (Klöckner 2015). TPB explains behaviors mainly as a result of individual intentions. Behavior intentions are formed by a rational choice weighing of the three factors: attitudes toward the behavior, perceptions of social norms, and perceptions of behavioral control. Triandis’ Theory of Interpersonal Behavior (1977) includes habits as an additional variable to explain why behaviors do not always align with behavioral intentions.
The concepts of social comparison, norms, and identity form the basis of theories such as Schwartz’s Norm Activation Theory (NAM) (1977). NAM explains positive social behavior through personal norms, which are rooted in the feeling of a moral obligation to help. Such norms are activated by awareness of consequences of performing or withstanding a particular behavior and the perceived responsibility of the behavior and its consequences. Value Belief Norm Theory (VBN) by Stern is an extension of NAM and also explains behavior as determined by a moral obligation to act, but includes the individual’s degree of ecological worldview as a contributing factor (2000). Noteworthy is also the decision-making context of Goal-framing Theory (Elliott and Fryer 2008), which states that an individual will have several different, hierarchically ordered goals at the same time and their behaviors can be understood as result of trying to achieve their most prioritized goal at that point in time. Cialdini et al.’s Focus Theory of Normative Conduct (1990) looks at how social norms, i.e., descriptive and injunctive norms, influence behavior. The norms ability to affect behavior depends on their salience in the consciousness of the individual at the time of the behavior.
Behavior Theories and Models Focusing on Contextual Factors
Contextual factors are important in explaining pro-environmental behavior, but these variables are often overlooked (Klöckner 2015) and are not as extensively examined for their effect on behavior as individual motivational factors (Steg and Vlek 2009). One theory that includes contextual variables as an explanation of behavior is Vlek et al.’s Needs Opportunities Abilities Model (2000). It portrays consumer behavior as influenced by societal factors and vice versa. The Comprehensive Action Determination Model of ecological behavior (Klöckner and Blöbaum 2010) combines TPB and NAM, including the concepts of context and habits for better predictability of pro-environmental behavior. Similarly, Kollmuss and Agyeman’s Model of Pro-Environmental Behavior (2002) takes a holistic approach and includes both internal and external factors to explain pro-environmental behaviors.
Theories and Models Focusing on Behavior Change
In addition to understanding behavior, scholars have also developed theories and models to understand changes in behavior. Lewin’s Change Theory (1951) was created around habits defined as resistance to change, in relation to behavior in groups. More permanent individual change and new habits will primarily occur if the whole social field adjusts. Lewin’s Change Theory conceptualizes change as a process, instead of an event.
The Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change (or Stages of Change Model) sees behavior change as a process of six different stages of change that an individual must go through for lasting behavior change (Prochaska and Velicer 1997). Bamberg adds that people can proceed from one stage to the next based on varied intentions and suggests different variables that contribute to forming the intention of each respective stage (2013).
The abovementioned theories each seek to explain behavior change at the individual level. To contribute to sustainable development, there is, however, a need for behavior changes to happen across large populations. In order to achieve this, Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations Theory and Model (2003) integrates the impact of social networks and interactions within the networks to develop more effective behavior change programs.
Planning Successful Behavior Change Programs
Behavior change theory provides important insight into the accumulated knowledge of human behavior and behavior change. This section describes recommended steps in planning effective and efficient behavior change programs and presents some of the most effective intervention tools. In general, behavior change programs should: (1) identify and analyze suitable behaviors for change, (2) choose and implement suitable intervention tools, and (3) evaluate the effectiveness of the program (McKenzie-Mohr 2011; Steg and Vlek 2009).
Identify and Analyse Suitable Behaviors
Identifying suitable behaviors and target groups is crucial to maximize a behavior change program’s impact. The most suitable behaviors to target are those with (1) a large environmental impact, (2) that are performed by many, and (3) where people are willing to change (McKenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014). Environmental impact assessments such as life-cycle assessment and input-output analyses can be used to identify and prioritize behaviors based on environmental impact. Behavior plasticity – the proportion of people who could be convinced to adopt a given behavior – can be used to rank and prioritize target behaviors (Dietz et al. 2009). Target group segmentation can be useful to identify populations most receptive to change or groups that require different types of interventions (Klöckner 2015). Additionally, measuring baseline levels of selected behaviors – i.e., current penetration rates – can aid in further identifying which population to target (Steg and Vlek 2009).
Behavior Change Tools
Intervention tools and empirical applications
Recycling (Austin et al. 1993)
Transportation habits (Matthies et al. 2006)
Energy savings (Becker 1978)
Energy conservation (Nolan et al. 2008)
Energy conservation (Abrahamse et al. 2007)
Change in physical, technical or organizational systems
Cycling rates (Pucher and Buehler 2008)
Plastic bags (Ritch et al. 2009)
Public transport (Fujii and Kitamura 2003)
Green electricity (Pichert and Katsikopoulos 2008)
Simplification and framing of information
Food choice (Wansink et al. 2012)
Changes in physical environment
Food waste (Kallbekken and Sælen 2013)
Eliciting social norms
Hotel towel use (Goldstein et al. 2008)
Informational Intervention Tools
One of the most common informational tools is providing information or education. These tools may lead to changes in attitudes and motivation; however, merely providing information does not often result in behavior change (Steg and Vlek 2009). Informational interventions tailored and framed to the needs, worldviews, and perceived barriers of the targeted population are more effective (Abrahamse et al. 2007; Nisbet 2009). Balancing the need for urgent action with emotions such as optimism and hope can also increase the effectiveness of information (Moser 2007). Providing information as a prompt is also used to induce behavioral change. Prompts – informational cues that draw attention to a desirable behavior – are most effective when the targeted behavior is easy to perform and when the prompt is in close proximity to where the behavior is performed (see Lehman and Geller 2004, for a review).
Another informational tool is the use of descriptive norms. Descriptive norms provide information on how most people in a situation behave and inform individuals of the most effective or appropriate behavior (Cialdini 2003). Social role models, individuals demonstrating or communicating how a particular behavior should be performed, can be used similarly (Lehman and Geller 2004). The use of norms is most effective when social proof – the number of other people performing the desired behavior – is high or the number of people behaving in an undesirable way is low (Cialdini 2003).
Goal setting, commitment, and feedback are also informational intervention tools. Goal setting is a tool where individuals set goals for future behavior and is most effective when used in combination with commitments and feedback (McCalley and Midden 2002). Asking individuals to commit to performing certain behaviors has also been shown to be an effective intervention tool (Lehman and Geller 2004). Public and written commitments are more effective than personal and oral commitments (Bell et al. 2001). Feedback, information on the effects of a behavior provided after the behavior is performed, has also shown positive results, especially in regard to energy savings (e.g., Van Houwelingen and Van Raaij 1989). Feedback is most effective when individually tailored and given frequently (Abrahamse et al. 2007).
Structural Intervention Tools
Structural tools change the costs, benefits, and availability of different behaviors by modifying physical, technical, and organizational systems, legislation, and price mechanisms (Steg and Vlek 2009). These tools impact perceptions of control (Klöckner and Blöbaum 2010) and may play a role in changing attitudes and motivation. Structural tools are most effective with behaviors that are costly and difficult to perform (Steg and Vlek 2009) and when dealing with habits (Verplanken and Wood 2006).
Structural tools often use reinforcements such as rewards or punishment to promote behavioral change (Lehman and Geller 2004). However, reinforcements can reduce intrinsic motivation related to the behavior and have negative consequences for the long-term effects of an intervention (see McKenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014, for review). Interventions rewarding pro-environmental behavior are generally more effective than those punishing environmentally harmful behavior (Geller 2002).
A nudge can be both an informational and a structural intervention, but it does not include economic incentives or the banning of behavior. Four of the most common and effective nudging tools are (1) deliberate use of default settings, (2) considerate simplification and framing of information, (3) changes in physical environment, and (4) eliciting of social norms (Lehner et al. 2015).
Evaluating Behavior Change Programs
The effectiveness and efficiency of behavior change interventions is measured using the following indicators: changes in behavioral determinants, changes in behavior and associated environmental impact, and the resource use of the program (McKenzie-Mohr 2011; Steg and Vlek 2009). A key for successful behavior change programs is finding the right tools for the targeted behavior and population. When there are both motivational and contextual barriers to behavioral adoption, combining several intervention tools may result in the most impact (Klöckner 2015). New technological tools such as persuasive technology also hold promise, as they combine informational and structural tools and tailor interventions to specific target groups (Steg et al. 2012). Smartphones apps and games, for instance, can reach large numbers of individuals and potentially increase the effects of behavior change interventions (Klöckner 2015).
Successful Behavior Change Interventions
Examples of successful behaviour change interventions
Intervention tools used
Household water consumption
Goal-setting; prompts; social norms
3.7–5.6% reduction in monthly water consumption
Mobile phone purchases
20% point increase in mobile phone repair; 7x increase in purchase of second-hand mobile phone
Norway, Switzerland, Denmark
Smart Grid technology uptake
2.5x more likely to accept Smart Grid installation in the opt-out condition
Uptake rates rose from 10% to 60%
13% point increase in commuters traveling before peak times
7.5% reduction in car use; 68.6% increase in public transportation use
25.4–40% increase in paper recycling
Office energy efficiency
13.5% reduction in energy use
61.3% increase in sales of pre-cut vegetables
Interventions in Governments and Municipalities
Governments, municipalities, and public organizations are increasingly incorporating behavioral science into policy making and regulations (OECD 2017). The government of the United Kingdom has an institution dedicated to the application of behavioral sciences and similar initiatives exist in Denmark, Australia, the United States, Singapore, and Canada (UNEP 2017). In California, the US Environmental Protection Agency used behavior change tools (including norms and addressing barriers) to reduce health effects associated with the consumption of a contaminated fish species (McKenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014). In Toronto, Canada, a multi-agency partnership launched anti-idling programs that employed personal contact, prompts, and commitments to reduce emissions associated with vehicle engine idling. These strategies reduced idling by 32% and the length of idling by 73% (McKenzie-Mohr et al. 2012). In the USA, over 6.2 million households have received the “Opower report” that uses personalized feedback, social comparisons, and energy conservation information to reduce residential energy use (Allcott and Rogers 2012).
Interventions at Higher Education Institutions
Higher education institutions play a crucial role in fostering sustainable development and have implemented behavior change interventions (Filho 2011). Higher education institutions implement behavior change interventions through resource use competitions and campus-based sustainability programs. Nationwide competitions, such as RecycleMania, and university-organized energy and water conservation challenges, target resource consumption by employing public commitments, prompts, and social norms to promote sustainable behaviors. These types of competitions have seen reductions of 28% of electricity use and 36% of water consumption (Petersen et al. 2015).
Interventions at Businesses and Organizations
As companies and organizations increasingly prioritize corporate social responsibility and organizational sustainability, there has been an increase in efforts to engage employees and customers in behavior change programs (see Young et al. 2015, for a review). Organizations use behavior change strategies to address issues related to material use and disposal, commuting to work, and water and energy use. Energy conservation behaviors in the workplace have been targeted through online feedback and controls (Yun et al. 2017), gamification (Gandhi and Brager 2016), and goal setting and information (Mulville et al. 2017). Businesses have also applied behavior change tools to encourage resource conservation among customers and guests. Norm-based reuse messages in hotel bathrooms, for instance, led to a 25–40% increase in towel reuse by hotel guests (e.g., Goldstein et al. 2008).
Interventions at Intergovernmental Organizations
Behavior change theories and approaches have also been employed by intergovernmental organizations. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP 2017), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2017), the World Health Organization (Jenkins 2003), and the World Bank (World Bank 2015) have reports on the use and application of behavioral insights for sustainable development. The United Nations engages several Behavioral Science Advisors and launched the UN Behavioural Initiative (UNBI) to integrate behavioral science into UN programming and operations (UNDP 2016). UNBI has applied behavioral science in China to increase e-waste recycling (norms and commitments were used) and in Bangladesh to increase use of public bus transportation during peak commuting hours (using electronic prompts) (UNDP 2016).
Critiques of Behavior Change for Sustainable Development
While behavioral science can successfully inform interventions for sustainable development, there can be unintended consequences on behaviors outside the scope of the intervention. Negative spillover effects occur when interventions have counterproductive effects or when the adoption of one pro-environmental behavior is associated with a reduction in a different pro-environmental behavior – for example, when the purchase of a fuel-efficient vehicle results in more overall driving (Klöckner et al. 2013).
The ethicality of some interventions has also been debated. Nudges receive criticism for lacking transparency, as nudges seek to influence thinking and choice making without awareness of the individual (Lehner et al. 2015). This tool is viewed as more ethical when individual choice is not restricted and when individuals are able to identify when and how nudges are applied.
Additionally, some scholars deem the individual behavior change approach too simplistic to solve complex environmental problems at the scale required. Scholars have questioned whether individual behavior change can effectively tackle problems like climate change or whether these problems require more systemic and structural transformations of society (Csutora 2012). Others argue that voluntary behavior change is too gentle and does little to change the status quo of unsustainable consumerism (De Young 2014). Nevertheless, many point out that small behavior changes accumulate, create demand for systemic change, and can lead to bottom-up momentum for sustainable development (Stoknes 2015).
Solving today’s environmental problems will require large-scale shifts in human behavior. McMenzie-Mohr and Schultz state that “behaviour change is central to the quest for a sustainable future” (2014, p. 35). Behavioral theories and models focused on motivational and contextual factors provide structure to the field of behavior change for sustainable development by providing explanations and rationale for how people make decisions and act on them. These theories inform experiments on pro-environmental behavior change and the development of informational and structural tools that foster the adoption of sustainable behaviors. Behavior change programs that reference behavioral theory, carefully research selected behaviors, and utilize a range of tools to target barriers and benefits will be most successful for fostering behavioral change for sustainable development.
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