Through 2 decades of developing strategies to foster sustainable behaviours, we have learned a few lessons. Here are 5 of them:
1. Don’t make assumptions.
That is a hard lesson to learn, but it is an important one, particularly for topic experts. The fact is, that although you may think you know all of the reasons why people will or won’t undertake a sustainable behaviour, you won’t know until you ask them. Do your research, through literature reviews, surveys and focus groups, to find out what is going on in your community. You will be surprised.
2. Take a long term view.
When trying to effect sustainable behaviours in communities, it is easy to fall into the trap that it is only successful if the change happens right away. However, the fact is that social norms take a long time to change. Most people would not even consider smoking in an elevator today. However, only 20 years ago it was completely acceptable behaviour. The change doesn’t happen overnight. But it does happen. Think of a row of dominoes. Eventually they all fall down. They don’t all fall down at the same time.
3. Select behaviours that make a difference.
Select sustainable behaviours carefully. You want to choose behaviours that have an impact, and are not so onerous that nobody will do them. Trying to get everyone to re-plumb their homes to use grey water to flush their toilets will be very difficult to achieve. Start first with them turning the tap off while they brush their teeth.
4. Plan with behaviours in mind.
Make sure that when you are planning systems, that they help foster behaviours, and don’t become barriers themselves. For instance, depot recycling systems that are difficult to access may attract ardent recyclers, but may be too much bother for others.
5. Pilot test your program.
Many organizations want to skip the research and pilot steps and just crank out communications materials and prompts. That is a recipe for failure. Make sure you test the program with a small group before you broaden to a larger one. It is much easier to iron a few small wrinkles than a bunch of big ones.