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Does behaviour change offer the key to sustainability?

October 2014

There are so many wonderful, technical innovations and services available to help your company reduce its environmental footprint – from solar panels, voltage optimisation and LED lighting to green computing, building management systems and electric vehicles. But these technologies can only take you so far. The people in your organisation hold a lot of sway and through them you can make a big impact.

Unfortunately it isn’t as straightforward as buying and installing the latest widget – we need to persuade people to change their behaviour: to switch off their computer or lights as they leave; report potentially hazardous incidents; or swap from car or plane to bike or train. What is perhaps most surprising is that, considering we are all people (!?), we have remarkably little insight into what makes us act the way we do.

So many organisations seem to think that if they tell everyone everything – written and displayed beautifully – their audience will a) consume that information; b) understand it; and c) act accordingly.

But it doesn’t work like that. Even if you do get your audience to absorb that information (no mean feat) there is no guarantee they will then behave in the way you want them to. People are complicated – a myriad of factors influence how we behave – from ingrained habit to beliefs, mood and what those around them are doing. You need to tap into these motivations to get people to change how they act.

But it is possible – it isn’t that long ago that we all put all our waste into one bin at home. For many of us now that is unthinkable - waste segregation has become second nature. This hasn’t happened accidentally – it has taken a lot of hard work from councils, and environmentalists! They didn’t give us all the information they had, they didn’t waffle on about landfill costs or waste processing.

Each council told their residents exactly what they wanted them to do in their area: “Put mixed recycling in the silver bin and other waste in the black bin.” There was, and still is, some complaining and I’m sure some stick-in-the-muds still refuse to segregate their waste. However, while there is room for improvement, overall it has worked.

So before your next sustainability communications campaign think – what do you actually want people to do differently? “Be more sustainable” isn’t an acceptable response, you have to be very specific: “switch to using the train to get to London”, or “turn off the computer at the end of the day”. The focus should be on behaviour, not attitude. While it would be wonderful for every single person in your organisation to be 100% committed to sustainability, it isn’t a realistic goal – it would take far too long for a start.

Convincing them to adopt simple changes to their behaviour is, comparatively, far more straight-forward. To be specific about the behaviour you want to change, you have to know your audience and target your message. Be comfortable having different communications targeted at different groups - it is pointless asking the cleaner to switch his computer off at the end of the day, or the CEO to switch to a more a more environmentally friendly floor cleaner. You should also talk to people in a language they understand and respond to – so talk about money with the FD and staff retention with the HR director. It may be trickier than it first appears but it is a challenge that can pay dividends, so persevere.

Alexandra McKay is Sustainable Business Manager at consultancy M4C 




M4C | UK & NI Ireland | Sustainability

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