Sustainability & Behaviour Change


There is a growing recognition that some of the challenges related to sustainable development are fundamentally social in nature.

They are social in terms of the behavioural drivers of consumption, how we choose to structure organisations and businesses and the behavioural assumptions underpinning many of the policies and interventions for sustainable consumption and production.

Many policies and interventions have assumed that humans behave in rational and predictable ways but how and why people and businesses behave is determined by many factors. For example, individual behaviour is deeply rooted in social situations, institutional contexts and cultural norms alongside cognitive factors. There are parallels with how businesses behave in the sense that organisational behaviour occurs within a broader context of innovation systems and sectors that embody institutional and cultural norms.


Sustainable Behaviour

The seemingly mundane choices in terms of how to heat our homes, what type of food is eaten, how much food waste is created and how we deal with that waste, whether we choose to travel by car or public transport or whether businesses invest in resource efficiency or produce more sustainable products and services will in part determine whether the Irish Government can transition to a low carbon, more resource efficient society.

A repeated message coming from behavioural and attitudinal surveys in Ireland is that people care about the environment and feel a responsibility towards pro-environmental behaviour. While these are stated values and attitudes, there are a number of gaps between these values, attitudes and actual actions or decisions taken. This value / intention action gap is well understood in the academic literature and has opened questioned about the reliance on information based interventions that seek to change attitudes and value.

While there are now a few decades of research outlining what constitutes optimal sustainable behaviours, it is important to stress that the focus on individual choice and decision making is only part of the story (see diagram below).

Sustainable behaviour is relatively complex in that it is the shared responsibility of individual citizens, communities, local authorities, government and industry. Some academic disciplines, such as environmental psychology, examine the complex interactions between humans and the environment.

A common theme across the literature is the difficulty of relating personal consumption and behaviour to large-scale problems such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and natural resource depletion. Even if people express environmental concern and awareness, this most often does not translate into pro-environmental behaviour (Kollmuss & Agyeman 2002). There may be a difficulty in making connections between intangible and complex macro problems of climate change and resource efficiency, as well as ethical and social concerns, and the very context of living and personal consumption. Rajecki (1982) defined four causes of this gap and these are outlined below.

Direct versus indirect experience

Direct experience of an issue is more likely to lead to changes in behaviour.

Normative influences

Social norms, cultural and family traditions are strong determinants of behaviour.

Attitude-behaviour measurement

There are often discrepancies between self-assessed attitudinal surveys and pro-environmental actions.

Temporal discrepancy

People’s attitudes change over time and may be contingent on a recent event.


Barriers to Sustainable Behaviour

There is a need to accept the complexity around behaviour change and the factors that drive or prevent pro-environmental behaviour. Aside from the cognitive aspects of decision making, many of the choices people make are constrained by the systems within which they live. We need to find a fair balance between what people want to be able to do and what they are actually able to do.

Some evidence suggests that enabling conditions (e.g. civic infrastructures, the built environment and local services) have a greater influence on behaviours than values and attitudes. This suggests that, while changing values, attitudes and choice architecture is important, it should not be the only focus of all interventions.

It is accepted that changing human behaviour is complex and challenging but there are a number of specific aspects of sustainable behaviour that are worth noting. The impacts or effect of unsustainable behaviours rarely directly impact upon the individual or at least the impacts are seen to be remote, many unsustainable behaviours are habits rather than active choices, individual behaviour is strongly influenced by peer and social norms and new behaviours are difficult to sustain over time.

diffuse, distant and delayed

Impacts appear distant or delayed and this limits action e.g. present bias, construal-level problems, motivated reasoning

habits not choices

Many behaviours are not active choices but unconscious habits. The focus of interventions is less about values and more on physical cues

social norms

People are influenced by social norms, peer and group influences as well as shifting identities. This can limit success of individualist interventions e.g. nudges.

hard to sustain

New behaviours can be hard to sustain for many reasons such as changing contexts and hassle factors. The use of defaults, reinforcements can assist in sustaining behaviours.


Practical implementation

In order to apply behavioural insights and behaviour theories within a policy context it is important to incorporate them into a pragmatic and practical framework. There are number of practical frameworks already being applied at different scales (e.g. DEFRA 4Es, EAST, Mindspace, ISM Model).