If done right, promoting sustainable behaviour can mean so much more than a clever slogan or an appeal for people to do their bit – it can be a political act in itself, says Adam Corner.

If it were possible to solve climate change overnight through new technologies, the strict regulation of high-polluting industries or a binding political agreement that all the world’s countries signed up to, wouldn’t that make more sense than focusing on everyday attitudes and behaviour?

The problem, of course, is that there is no magic low-carbon wand, but if there was it would be waved by a person as susceptible to the quirks, biases, and pitfalls of human judgement as the rest of us. So although it is comforting to draw sharp distinctions between politics, technologies and individuals, the reality is that human behaviour underpins it all. And this means that promoting sustainable behaviour in the most effective way is an absolutely critical part of society’s response to climate change.

At first, it was assumed that once people knew how environmentally damaging their actions were, they’d soon start making changes. Unfortunately, sustainable behaviour campaigns require more than just a clever campaign slogan and clear facts to succeed. Many sustainability initiatives over the past 20 years have targeted low-hanging fruit – so-called “simple and painless” behaviour changes like unplugging phone chargers, switching to energy-saving light-bulbs, or re-using plastic bags.

But there is only limited evidence that starting with simple and painless changes is the best way of catalysing further changes – and there is a risk that people will feel they have already done their bit.

So what should we be doing instead? First and foremost, individuals – and individual behaviours – cannot be separated from their social context. We act according to our personal values and priorities and in line with the social norms of our peer group. The key to promoting meaningful changes in sustainable behaviour – that do more than just pay lip service to tackling climate change – is to nurture and develop a sense of environmental identity or citizenship.

When a person acts for self-interested reasons, that person will perceive themselves as someone who does things for their own benefit. They will only engage in further sustainable behaviours if there is something in it for them – so as soon as the ‘sweeteners’ dry up, so will their interest in sustainability. But if people begin to think of themselves as someone who does things for the environment, the chance that they will engage in other sustainable behaviours is much higher.

It may not always be the quickest way of promoting a specific sustainable behaviour, but ultimately people can figure out for themselves whether something is in their own interest or not. The job of a sustainable behaviour practitioner is to help them see the bigger picture, and make the arguments about sustainability that an appeal to their wallet cannot do.

A huge amount of everyday energy use is embedded in habitual behaviours. The problem is that something seemingly straightforward like getting the bus to work is actually made up of lots of smaller (habitual) decisions, for example leaving home earlier or showering the night before to save time, all of which can derail even the best intentions. Research on how habits form (and how they change), shows that breaking habitual behaviours down into detailed “if/then” style plans is one way to break bad habits and create more sustainable ones.

But even the best-designed campaign to promote sustainable behaviour is limited in its scope if it fails to link everyday behaviours to the wider challenges of sustainability. Most people do not have a social network with sustainability at its core, but working to develop a group – rather than individual – sense of environmental responsibility and identity should be at the heart of any sustainability campaign.

Similarly, for those who are trying to promote sustainable behaviour in the workplace, then there is an obvious place that most employees would look to for leadership: their employer. Changes in personal behaviours among workers can catalyse further changes from an employer because the argument that “we’ve done our bit – now you do yours” is a powerful one.

Cultivating reciprocal links like these – between staff and employer, or between members of a social network – is one of the ways to ensure that promoting sustainable behaviour isn’t detached from the politics of sustainability. How people act says something about their underlying values, the priorities they hold, and the type of world they want to live in.

It may have become a tired old cliché, but being the change you want to see still sends out an important message. If done right, promoting sustainable behaviour can mean so much more than a clever slogan or an appeal for people to do their bit – it can be a political act in itself.

Adam Corner is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on the psychology of communicating climate change. He leads the Talking Climate programme for the Climate Outreach and Information Network and is a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.

This article draws on content from his new book, Promoting Sustainable Behaviour: A Practical Guide to What Works published by Dō Sustainability.