The Sustainability Intention-to-Action Gap

A growing proportion of people believe it is important to act in a way that is sustainable, and that helps avert catastrophic climate change. Yet only a fraction of them actually go beyond talking about it, and effectively change their behavior. Why might this be?

Over the last several years, there has been a considerable amount of research around the adoption of renewable energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels (in particular the adoption of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels). Let’s have a look at some of the findings, and to what extent they may be generalizable or at least inspire ideas for other opportunities for sustainable behavior.

The switch from one behavior to another feels like (and often is) a hurdle, and the pull of the status quo is strong. What prevents a household from putting solar panels on their roof, a Swedish study asked. Two kinds of households were interviewed: those that had already made the change, and those that were still getting their energy from big suppliers and conventional fossil fuels. Four types of households emerged from the survey:

  • Environmentally engaged adopters needed little initial motivation to switch to the new behaviors. However, they sometimes had a hard time processing the information (often too technical, and difficult to make comparisons in specifications and prices between different options), and were not sure when they had enough to make up their mind. This is an important point for a substantial investment such as PV panels, but the same might apply for electrical appliances.
  • Professionally skilled adopters were also highly motivated. They had no trouble with the available information, but also struggled to compare different quotes, and they were particularly worried about unexpected problems during installation.
  • Accidental adopters were more impulsive, and had little need for information – all they needed typically came from neighbors or advertisements. Selecting a supplier also was not an issue for them: they generally took up the offer from the provider first met.
  • Non-adopters were a bit overwhelmed: they did not know where to look for relevant information, and when they got some, found it complicated. They tended to focus on the barriers rather than enablers for PV adoption – which is why they remained non-adopters in the first place.

This appears to be quite a useful categorization for exploring the wider adoption of sustainable behaviors, not just for investment items (like freezers or washing machines), but also for consumables (like lightbulbs and detergents), and for more general behavior (like reusing shopping bags or energy conservation).

Information is an important factor all around, but both the nature and the purpose differ across the household types. For environmentally engaged households, there is no need to persuade: they are already prepared to take sustainable action. The little push they need is a simple, understandable way to compare the available options, and evaluate them according to their specific needs. Such practical, no-nonsense guidance is likely equally useful for big-ticket items as for cosmetics or food.

The professionally skilled adopters also need no persuasion, and they may already know and understand the facts, but for them it might be useful to emphasize the importance (and ease) of making a sustainable choice. If – as with significant infrastructure like PV panels – there is a worry around installation, an accreditation scheme may well remove that barrier to adoption. Some form of trust or approval scheme for consumables might work along the same lines, if necessary.

The accidental adopters are relatively easily swayed, so for them straightforward, appealing and inviting messaging may well do most of the hard work. Viral campaigns that emphasize the social nature of the choice, and that make the choice personal would also be a suitable way for engaging people in this category and establish an image of trustworthiness – both in terms of the sustainability itself, and in terms of the quality of the product or service in question.

For the non-adopters, the purpose of the central message should be persuasion. But that is only part of the challenge: somehow, several different barriers must be overcome. While it is tough to pinpoint an individual household’s principal obstacles, there are some more generic instruments that may pave the way towards building an aspiration to close the sustainability gap.

A first one centers around peer effects. An American study looked at how adoption of solar panels played out in California. It divided the state in areas defined by their zip code, and looked at the extent to which the number of dwellings with solar panels at one point predicted the subsequent adoption rate. For an area with the average number of owner-occupied houses in a zip code (just under 5,000), a single extra installation in the zip increased the likelihood that one of the non-adopters will bite the bullet by 0.78 percentage points. This increase is before any messages are used, for example “most of the people in your area are generating some of their own energy – wouldn’t you?”, which can further boost adoption. The appearance of PV panels on a roof in the street is of course very salient (a similar effect has been be observed regarding the adoption of highly recognizable hybrid cars, with the Toyota Prius as the trailblazer). Other sustainable choices may not inherently be so salient, but the idea of making them stand out definitely offers opportunities for creative folks.

Solar panels can also be an economically sensible choice and save the owner money, but a possible barrier is myopia: people fail to see the long-term benefit and focus on the initial cost. This would also be relevant for, say, a hybrid or electric car, energy efficient lighting or large appliances). Labelling and color coding can help summarize the lifetime saving and make it salient and easy to understand. But highlighting the cumulative benefit can work for environmental benefits too – “this product will reduce a typical household’s waste plastic that ends up in the ocean by x kg per year”, for example.

Unsurprisingly, there is no miracle solution that will suddenly turn every professed concerned citizen into a champion of sustainability. But understanding the different reasons why people are not quite putting their words into practice can go a long way towards helping them go beyond sustainability lip service.

(With thanks to Dan White)