Is intrinsic motivation enough to change our sustainability behaviour?

How do you make people act more sustainably? Whether it is learning to reuse materials, returning items for refill or refurbishment, separating your waste for recycling or just not littering, is intrinsic motivation enough? Banner: Shutterstock/Alexander Oganezov
Is intrinsic motivation enough to change our sustainability behaviour?
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This week my manager asked me to order a bottle of champagne and get it delivered. Only one caveat, buy the most sustainable packaging. Sounds easy. Googling is my superpower after all. Two hours later, it turned out not so easy. Champagne tends to be sold in exactly the same packaging. Dark green glass bottle wrapped in a cardboard or wooden box. If only I could find something stating recycled glass or recycled cardboard. Or something excitingly novel like a pouch, a lightweight paper bottle or even a recycled PET bottle. No go. I couldn’t even find information on CO2 emissions during delivery. Not an offset in sight. This waste of time taught me that even the most knowledgeable and committed customer cannot buy what is not for sale. How can we expect consumers to change their behaviour if industry does not offer circular solutions?

Behavioural change models

There is a multitude of behavioural change models designed to influence consumers’ decisions. These can be applied to everything from persuading us to wear bicycle helmets to encouraging environmentally-friendly practices. For example, Rare’s Centre for Behavior & the Environment has a behaviour change framework comprising six motivational levers.

Levers of Behavior Change - RARE Center for Behavior and Environment

The first three are classic tools to stimulate our rational decision-making process: information, incentives and rules. Tell people why they should do it, how they should do it and the risks of not doing it. Give them a reward for doing it or a penalty for not doing it. Or take the choices out of their hands by enforcing rules and regulations. We’re familiar with these strategies, especially when it comes to sustainability. Awareness campaigns, labelling, subsidies for buying electric vehicles, carbon taxes on flights and single-use plastic bans are all examples of how we have been informed, incentivised, dissuaded and regulated.

They work because they make sense. Present a rational person with a rational decision, and they will surely choose in their best interests.

The power of peers

Scientists at Yale University discovered that the main influencing factor in installing solar panels was not cost-savings, concerns for the environment or affordability. It was whether your neighbour has recently installed solar panels. 

As anyone who took up smoking as a teenager can tell you, humans are not always rational beasts. Cigarettes are expensive, unhealthy and, if you’re under 18 in most countries, illegal. They don’t even make you happy. There are zero benefits and countless known risks, yet millions of people make this decision when they are young. Why? Peer pressure. Humans—yes, that includes teenagers—are naturally pack animals. We like to fit in with each other, emulate those we admire, follow trends and accept social norms. This social peer pressure also affects our sustainability decisions. Scientists at Yale University discovered that the main influencing factor in installing solar panels was not cost-savings, concerns for the environment or affordability. It was whether your neighbour has recently installed solar panels. The more aspirational and the more "expected" we can make the desired behaviour, the more successful the uptake will be.

Chasing the dopamine

Back to the teenagers. If you’ve ever looked at TikTok, you may be wondering why this inane, time-sponge of an app is so unbelievably popular. Well, it isn’t because of the never-ending stream of quality content. It’s dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in your brain that controls reward and motivation. When we do something that makes us happy, like eat sugar, win a game or laugh at something silly, we release dopamine, making us want to do it again and again. It’s one of the reasons we form addictions, but it can also be a powerful motivational tool. When it comes to sustainability, engagement and gamification are the holy grail of marketing techniques. From augmented reality apps and rewards for recycling to bins that let you choose your favourite Kardashian, if you make it fun they’ll want to do it again.

Tap into emotions

Emotions like fun, pride, fear or shame can trigger different behaviour, but their effect can often be temporary. It is why documentaries about plastic pollution hit a nerve, but a few weeks later, people continue buying bottled water. Emotional appeals must be repeated and fortified by practical support. When it comes to nudging business leaders in the right direction, you may think emotions have no place in the cold, calculated world of reports and balance sheets, but CEOs are people, too. They respond to emotional triggers just like consumers. They may need more confirmation, like a cost-benefit analysis or a convincing profit projection. Still, they also like to feel good, to be proud of their work and, obviously, to be better than their competitors.

More on the Forum Network: Climate justice starts with the youngest children by Shweta Bahri & Keya Lamba, Co-Founders, Earth Warriors
More on the Forum Network: Climate justice starts with the youngest children by Shweta Bahri & Keya Lamba, Co-Founders, Earth Warriors
The climate crisis is a child rights crisis: young children today will bear the biggest brunt despite having contributed the least. They need a sense of hope for the future and must have the confidence to champion for it.

Build it, and they will come

Many of our decisions are made without thinking at all. They are habitual, and habits are notoriously difficult to change even if your intentions are set. Sustainable options must be physically put in front of you so they can be unconsciously chosen even by people who aren’t infected with eco-anxiety. If we want reusable packaging, for example, to have widespread uptake; we need it to become the default option. Willemijn Peeters from circular plastics company Searious Business believes it needs to be the only option. “Reuse needs to be made standard for it to work. Single-use packaging has to be the more difficult and expensive choice”.

Imagine a world where the sustainable option was dominant. Restaurant menus with a small meat section at the back, coffee shops where you have to pay extra if you want a single-use cup, driving your petrol car round the car park searching for a space that isn’t a charging station. Would we even need motivation at all?

When it comes to addressing plastic pollution, we can come up with all the solutions we want, but without people actually doing it, nothing will change. Anything that is more effort will inevitably require more than intrinsic motivation. One thing is clear: the focus has been on changing consumer behaviour for far too long. We also have to work on changing the behaviour of those higher up the value chain—the producers, retailers and brands—if we want to create a working circular system.

Read also the OECD report Think green: Education and climate change

Read the OECD report Think green: Education and climate change

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Go to the profile of Amador Almeida
10 months ago

Human needs, sustainability and economic growth, what is your view on these issues and how can they go together?

Go to the profile of Emma Samson
10 months ago

I hope and believe we can find solutions which will satisfy all three, but it is clear that we cannot keep prioritising unlimited economic growth over the health and needs of people and the planet.