Five top tips for unlocking green behaviour change

Madeleine Cuff
clock • 7 min read

Experts from the energy, sustainability, and behavioural science world reveal their secrets for turning climate concern into climate action

Earlier today MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee warned the UK has "no chance" of meeting its stretching climate change targets unless immediate action is taken to improve energy efficiency in homes and buildings across the country.

The rate of energy efficiency installations has plummeted by 95 per cent since 2012, as government incentives have been withdrawn, leaving households and businesses to foot the cost of work themselves.

Yet even when large, government-backed initiatives were in place, take up of energy efficiency measures among households still fell below expectations.

The Green Deal, for example, ran from 2012 to 2015 and offered homeowners the chance to pay for energy efficiency work through savings on energy bills. But while policy makers hoped the scheme would prompt improvements in millions of UK homes, in reality just 14,000 loans were issued to households via the programme. Public awareness of the offer remained relatively low, and extensive energy efficiency improvememts were still viewed by many as time consuming, complex, and inconvenient, even with the offer of low-cost financing.

"Householders were not persuaded that energy efficiency measures were worth paying for through the Green Deal and take-up of loans was abysmal," MPs said of the scheme in 2016, arguing that marketing materials focused on financial benefits of saving energy rather than emphasising the comfort of a warm, well insulated home.

The difficulties faced by the Green Deal illustrate the common pitfalls businesses and policymakers face all the time when attempting to change consumer behaviour.

Experts at Shell's Powering Progress Together Summit last week repeatedly stressed that what might seem like a convincing, logical argument for consumers to make changes - such as the promise of financial savings - are not always enough to convince people to act. 

Too often when businesses and governments design schemes focused on behaviour change, they fail to think through how decision-making works in the real world. That requires taking note of ingrained habits, 'hassle' factors, and contextual circumstances. It also means considering what people actually care about and respond to when designing marketing materials, not what economists assume they should care about. 

"We need to gear policy more towards human ways of decision-making behaviour rather than the hypothetical actor," argued Toby Park, head of energy and sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team.

But what might this mean in practice? How can businesses and policymakers convince people not only that reducing their greenhouse gas emissions is a good idea, but that they should turn their good intentions into action? Here are some pointers:

1. Deliver using defaults

People can be made more or less likely to do something depending on how easy the change is. Many people don't change banks, for example, because of the perceived difficulty of the task. Inserting or removing friction can be an effective way of steering sustainable behaviour, Park said. "One profound way to make things easier is to automate things," he noted. Businesses can make the sustainable option the default choice; for example Co-Op switched its default pension scheme to an ESG-focused fund earlier this week. From default renewable energy tariffs, default inclusion of carbon offsets on flights, default removal of plastic cutlery on Deliveroo orders, there are multiple green variants on this approach, and they tend to work.

2. Stress quality, not efficiency

Sometimes energy efficiency improvements are most effectively carried out by stealth. David Weatherall, head of policy at the Energy Savings Trust, pointed out that in the last 20 years the percentage of homes with double glazing installed has shot up from 30 per cent to 85 per cent. That is despite the fact double glazing is not actually a hugely cost-effective form of insulation. "According to our website, the typical cost of putting a double glazing on a semi-detached three bedroom home is about £3,500," he said. "And it saved about £85 pounds a year on your energy bill. It's going to take a long time to pay that back."

But people still typically favour imporving their windows over other upgrades, primarily because they do not think about double glazing in energy efficiency terms. "We install double glazing because it makes homes more comfortable, it cuts back on draughts, it cuts down on sound transmission," explained Weatherall. "It's seen as part of having a quality home now." 

3. Pick your moment

People are more likely to adopt a new habit or change their behaviour when their lifestyle is being disrupted anyway, Parks pointed out. For example, the Behavioural Insights Team did a study recently revealing that people who have just moved house to near a bike sharing station are four times more likely to adopt the scheme than people who already live in the area.

This tip was echoed by Hermione Taylor, founder of pledge platform Do Nation, who highlighted a pledge project to change eating habits among first year university students that was really successful, because it coincided with a major lifestyle change for the participants.

When it comes to energy efficiency, timing communications and incentives to when people are moving home or renovating a property anyway will be crucial for raising install rates, Park argued.

4. Use small change to unlock big change

Encouraging people to switch to a reusable water bottle or to take public transport to work might not in itself feel like a big environmental gain. But as Taylor pointed out, even small lifestyle changes can unlock a significant shift in thinking that can pave the way for larger changes.

Do Nation targets workplaces for its pledges in part because they are an effective means of reaching large groups of people linked by good communication networks and with an existing culture of accountability. But they are also an effective route to decision makers with the powers to effect change beyond their own immediate actions.

"The main blocker for businesses and governments making changes is people," observed Taylor. "It's people who don't believe in the power or importance of sustainability. They don't believe in its attainability. They just think it's a scary thing that some people need to deal with, but they are going to put their head in the sand and carry on with business as usual. We really need to get into their minds and change that attitude. Those decision makers and influencers can make the changes that are needed."

For example, an employee from PR firm Hill + Knowlton had hoped to set up a sustainability practice at the agency, but was a little ahead of the times, Taylor recounted. She set up a company pledge with Do Nation as an alternative action, sparking huge enthusiasm from across the company. The programme helped to build a culture of sustainability, raising understanding and interest in the issues amongst employees, and meant that she was able to get enough buy in and support for setting up an internal sustainability practice - a service called Better Impact, advising businesses on how to design corporate strategies that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

5. Make sustainability exciting

In today's world consumers are bombarded with information and messages all competing for their attention. To cut through the noise, sustainability communication must stand out and give people a reason to pay attention.

One method of doing this, Park said, is to rethink conventional incentive structures. People tend to overestimate their odds of winning something, he said, and focus more on the size of the prize - it's why so many people enter the lottery each week.

We can use this knowledge in a sustainability setting, he suggested. Take the government's impending Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles. Instead of giving each person 10 pence back for each bottle they return, why not turn it in to a lottery and reward someone with £100,000 for every millionth bottle returned, Park asked. Rough calculations suggest you could have 35 winners a day he said, and people would be more likely to participate a life-changing sum on offer. 

Of course there is only so far behaviour change can go to cut emisisons, the experts stressed. People can only make decisions within the context of society - and at the moment our society makes owning a petrol or diesel car, living in a draughty home, and buying single-use packaging incredibly easy. Park and Weatherall both stressed that efforts to change consumer behaviour must be accompanied by more stringent government action to curb carbon-intensive activity. "We do have to be careful of thinking too much the small changes can be enough," warned Weatherall. "We need big changes to happen quite urgently. And I think we need government intervention to succeed to achieve that".

The BusinessGreen Powering Progress Together Hub is supported by Shell. All the hub's content is editorially independent, unless stated otherwise.

More on Marketing

Nobody could think a Skydiamond was ripped from the bowels of the Earth

Nobody could think a Skydiamond was ripped from the bowels of the Earth

Diamond miners are trying to bury environmentally responsible alternatives through their recent complaint to the advertising regulator, warns Skydiamond's Dale Vince

Dale Vince, Skydiamond
clock 19 April 2024 • 3 min read
'Change starts with imagination': New Climate Fiction Prize to launch at The Hay Festival this summer

'Change starts with imagination': New Climate Fiction Prize to launch at The Hay Festival this summer

Prize aims to showcase novels of powerful literary merit and celebrate fiction which engages with the climate crisis

clock 19 April 2024 • 2 min read
Sounds Right: Nature inspired music initiative aims to raise $40m for conservation

Sounds Right: Nature inspired music initiative aims to raise $40m for conservation

Revenue generated from streams of nature-based tracks to support biodiversity protection projects

clock 18 April 2024 • 4 min read