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From pro-environment intent to action: Insights from behaviour science

Even when we believe in the need for sustainable practices and have the means and capacity to act, we often find it challenging to practise pro-environmental behaviour. Why do we struggle to do so?

Every summer, depleting groundwater levels raise fears of water scarcity across India’s cities and villages, and each winter, rising pollution levels force our national capital region to slow down. While the spotlight is, rightly so, on governments to protect forests and wetlands and plan for energy and infrastructure needs for the future, we must recognise the collective impact of individual lifestyles on the environment. However, even when we believe in the need for sustainable practices and have the means and capacity to act, we often find it challenging to practise pro-environmental behaviour. Why do we struggle to translate intention into action? Are there strategies to address this intention-action gap? What makes these strategies work?

Environmental psychologist Robert Gifford compiled a list of psychological barriers explaining why we find it tough to adopt environment-friendly lifestyles even when we can and want to. For example, we may not know which actions to take or are locked in the momentum of our present actions. At other times, we may feel a lack of control over a problem of global proportions or underestimate the likelihood of experiencing an environmental disaster. We may not trust experts and authorities on a particular matter, or we may find it convenient to practise token actions that are relatively easier to adopt. 

Recent campaigns by non-governmental organisations, efforts from industry, and research in behavioural sciences reveal a wide range of strategies to overcome some of these barriers. One effective method is to empower children as agents of change. This step has immediate and long-term effects on individual and collective adoption of sustainable lifestyles. As soft messengers, children signal warmth, vulnerability and trust, which increases the influence of the message they share. Pro-environmental activity by children typically involves their parents, teachers, and schools, resulting in broader awareness and adoption of sustainable practices.

Moreover, children increasingly influence families’ consumption decisions in the form of the toys they want and the food they like. The work of young climate activists like Greta Thunberg sparked dinner table conversations in the US on recycling. Letters sent by children to Lego compelled the company to commit to replacing single-use plastic packaging and exploring alternative materials for their plastic bricks. Empowering children is a far-sighted behavioural strategy because they are the consumers and decision-makers of the future. Involving them amplifies the effect of campaigns like the UN’s Climate Action Superheroes, which empowers children under 12 to recycle and save water and energy. 

Source: United Nations

Other effective, albeit evolving, strategies involve nudges or minor changes to the contexts in which we make consumption decisions. Examples include adding carbon footprint labels on meals and climate-friendly default options on food menus. These small changes direct us towards environmentally-favourable actions without limiting our choices. Things like carbon footprint labels allow us to make informed decisions at the time of purchase and build knowledge of climate-friendly options over time. These labels are evolving to be applicable across a range of products. They need to be standardised, ranked or graded based on criteria. In addition to including the carbon footprint involved in producing the goods, the labels would need to account for the carbon footprint involved in packaging, recycling, and waste management. 

Source: The Ethical Consumer

In addition to external influences on behaviour, such as messengers or nudges, behavioural scientists recognise self-regulation as an effective strategy to reduce the number of failures or deviations from the goals we set for ourselves These include planning a response or action before performing the behaviour, like telling yourself to turn the tap off while you brush your teeth. They could also involve changing how you think to emphasise long-term environmental impacts over short-term enjoyment, as in thinking about ordering takeout in plastic disposables as environmentally unsustainable rather than convenient. Another way is to effortfully control environmentally unsustainable impulses, like suppressing the temptation to buy fast fashion instead of sustainable, durable clothing. 

Adopting sustainable lifestyles takes time and effort. However, simple, thoughtfully-designed behavioural strategies can make it simpler. They can provide motivation and access to information for informed decision-making and create mental models that make it easier to act in ways that are good for the environment while making it harder to act in ways that are harmful to it.

Author: Pratyusha Govindaraju

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka