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23 Mar 2022

How can businesses use behavioural science to become more sustainable?

Pippy Stephenson

Often our failure to lead sustainable lives is boiled down to a lack of motivation. However using behavioural science we can understand it in more nuanced terms. We all know that we need to adapt how we live to help combat climate change but often we’re not sure how, it doesn’t feel immediately important or we make choices out of habit. Sustainable consumption sometimes doesn’t feel relevant to people and they are influenced by the people around them. Our behaviours are fuelled by habit, convenience, money and social norms. These are often hard to change. To put it simply, most of the time we make the choice that is easiest and more often than not, the easiest choice is not a sustainable one. 

We fall short in following through on our intentions when we favour immediate gratification, we are too ambitious with our intentions or perhaps something about our environment stops us. This is called the Intention-Action Gap. It’s what happens when we really think we’re going to do something but it doesn’t happen. Perhaps we haven’t got the time or the money or maybe we just can’t get into the new habit. 

The degree to which we think we can control an outcome also limits our willingness to change. If we consider this in relation to climate change it makes sense to imagine that people aren’t attempting to be more sustainable because they don’t think it’ll make a difference. This of course is another debate, whether the responsibility for dealing with climate change should fall on the general public or on businesses. 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions so there is cause to say that is where the focus should be. However, that’s not to say we as individuals should carry on polluting because we aren’t as bad as these big businesses. We can all do our bit and even if it feels like it isn’t making a difference, we can see that in recent years it has. If it wasn’t for the growing popularity of green lifestyles, companies wouldn't be supplying the demand for reusable products and vegan alternatives. 

Often threats and unwanted advice have been used to convince people to take action about climate change. But through behavioural science we can understand that threats and unsolicited advice illicit denial, resistance and fear often based around how we think we will be seen socially. We are reluctant to change longstanding habits or stand out from what we and our peers have always done. 

The most effective way of influencing behaviour is to improve the “choice architecture”, i.e reorganising the context in which people make decisions. Choice architecture is the design of how choices are presented such as how they are described, if there's a perceived “default” and how many choices there are. Choice architecture can be used to “nudge” people towards more socially responsible behaviours. The way to initiate change is not to encourage it with words but to make the most sustainable choice the easiest and most immediate one. Rather than asking people to change their behaviour we can facilitate it so that the environmental choice becomes automatic by using nudge theory. 

Nudge theory suggests that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can be used to influence behaviour and decision making. In an article by Dr Lori Barile from Warwick University she writes, “In the UK, examples of successful nudges are the opt-out scheme for organ donations to increase the number of organ donors, the reduced size of general waste bins to incentivise people to recycle, peer pressure to encourage people to pay their tax debt and swapping 17-hole saltshakers for 5-hole shakers in fish and chip shops to cut salt consumption.”

Currently nudge theory is used mainly to target the behaviour of individuals however once it becomes more widely used to influence the decisions of industry leaders then we will be able to see real change. It could be applied to discourage costly environmental decisions and increase sustainable and responsible investment (SRI) as well as other sustainable business practices. 

Due to the recent increase in working from home, there is great potential to make other radical changes to the workplace. And it seems only right that we would take advantage of this opportunity to look for a more sustainable way of working. Working from home in itself has not been proven to be more sustainable as the emissions saved from commuting and supplying energy to our offices is more or less displaced to our consumption at home. 

Businesses can play a role in helping their employees be more sustainable such as by requiring them to travel less often and providing them with energy efficient equipment. Of course, with many employees working from home now businesses have less control over what resources are consumed as well as having little access to the data. However by working with their employees in a respectful and transparent way businesses can help facilitate a more sustainable culture. 

For a business seeking to become more sustainable, nudge theory and choice architecture can be used to make changes that will have an overall positive impact. This could be done by making an environmental choice the default, having everyone agree to do something (we’re more likely to do something when people around us do too) and/or making a choice more difficult e.g. removing all but one of the office printers (so that people use less paper as they’ll only print what they really need to). 

If you would like to discover more ways of making your business sustainable, book a ticket to Reset Connect, 28-29 June, where start-ups, investors, innovators and industry leaders will come together to work towards net-zero and speed the transition to a green economy.