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3 Psychological Concepts That Can Propel Your Sustainability Efforts

These three concepts highlight how understanding human thought processes can influence the adoption of sustainable behaviors and promote corporate sustainability. Think about the messages you’re giving as a business, and how these can be tweaked to empower your stakeholders.

According to a 2020 Living Planet Index report, the world’s average footprint is 2.5 global hectares per person. This means we’re demanding resources at a rate that’s 1.56x faster than what Earth can regenerate — hence, our current environmental crisis.

The global climate crisis demands action at all levels — from individuals, governments and businesses.

This article focuses on business action, and how business sustainability can be promoted using environmental psychology. By the end of this article, you’ll understand the power of the human mind to change behavior and create a cultural shift. You’ll learn how to leverage this understanding to drive business sustainability both internally (for employees) and externally (for consumers).

What is environmental psychology?

Environmental psychology studies how people work with and respond to the world around them. For instance, an environmental psychologist may investigate why individuals choose to recycle, what motivates individuals to purchase sustainable products, or what environments people are happiest in.

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Psychologists have long been involved in attempts to promote sustainable behaviors. Think about it: Today’s environmental issues are a human problem — a result of how we think, feel and behave. What better way to solve this problem than by tapping into the minds of those causing it?

The climate crisis is a consequence of short-term thinking for survival. This type of thinking helped us 160,000 years ago but is less suited to modern life. By stripping our natural world of its resources and continuing our unchecked consumption, we’re ultimately creating a harsher world — which is already negatively impacting our wellbeing.

Environmental psychologists study this impact and the human motivation to mitigate it.

The psychology behind sustainability: 3 concepts to further corporate efforts

Understanding human psychology in the context of sustainability can be used by organizations to:

  1. Promote sustainability internally (aimed at employees).

  2. Market sustainability externally (aimed at consumers).

Let’s look at three core psychological concepts used to promote corporate sustainability both internally and externally.

Concept #1: Proactive prosocial motivations

Prosocial motivation is the desire to protect and promote the wellbeing of others. Proactive prosocial behavior is self-benefiting — helping others for intrinsic reward.

Proactive social motivation means people behave to promote social acceptance and friendship. They act in a way that’s perceived favorably by their social group. This is significant.

For instance, one study aimed to reduce the energy use of a typical Canadian homeowner. Different messages were used and the effectiveness of each was studied.

Messages statistically indicating actual homeowner energy use were more effective at reducing energy consumption. This is relative to messages focusing on environmental protection and social responsibility — in this case, people reduced their energy consumption to the level they were told a majority had — unaware that they’d followed social norms (humans are not always aware of reasons for their behavior).

Application in business:

  1. Promoting sustainability internally: Collate and display data that indicates the level of employee support for sustainable developments — e.g. If introducing a cycle-to-work scheme, run employee polls to discover scheme support. Then, display poll results to encourage further support.

  2. Promoting sustainability externally: 74 percent of consumers will pay more for sustainable alternatives — meaning, proactive prosocial motivations work in favor of sustainable options. Leverage such statistics to market your sustainable product/service.

Concept #2: Self-presentation motivation

Self-presentation refers to how people present themselves to control or shape how they’re viewed. This, and other identity concerns, could supersede the desire to protect the environment — or, vice-versa, could encourage people to do more for the natural world.

For example, the Toyota Prius was the world’s first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid vehicle. Its domestic launch in 1997 marked an attempt to bring to market a practical, low-emission family car.

At the same time was the Honda Civic hybrid launch. This was the first hybrid automobile to be certified as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero-Emissions Vehicle. Yet its success faltered under the Prius.

A survey reported by the New York Times said the top reason for people choosing the Prius over the Honda Civic, was that marketing efforts of the former “made a statement about them”. This gave individuals the self-perception they wanted — environmentally conscious consumers.

Application in business:

  1. Promoting sustainability internally: What are your employee’s values? Make a statement about these values to promote your sustainability initiatives.

  2. Promoting sustainability externally: Focus on the values of your customers. For instance, most people want their children, and generations to come, to have a good life quality. Leverage this value to promote sustainability.

Concept #3: Behavioral affordances

Behavioral affordances are properties of the physical environment that give opportunity for a particular action. For example, some actions that promote sustainability are not always available options. Cost is one such barrier.

And even when actions are physically possible, the lack of information about how to perform them can prevent action. In either case, the motivation to act is irrelevant.

For example, littering is more likely when there are no garbage cans, taking the bus is impractical with an infrequent and unreliable service, and organic produce cannot be purchased if it’s not available.

It’s important to arrange circumstances so that unsustainable options are precluded — e.g. people will switch to unleaded gasoline if leaded gas is no longer available, and learn to bring reusable bags when non-reusable ones are absent.

Application in business:

  1. Promoting sustainability internally: Make sustainable choices easy for your employees — e.g. allow employees to control office heating with controllable thermostats. Evaluate ways in which current sustainability-related behavior is made easy or difficult, and consider what simple changes can be made to facilitate the behavior.

  2. Promoting sustainability externally: Make your product/service the sustainable choice for your consumers — e.g. use less packaging. Be fully transparent about your environmental impact for consumers to make an informed purchase decision. Conduct regular environmental audits, abide by ISO 14001 standards to collate accurate environmental information, and avoid greenwashing.

The three concepts presented above highlight how understanding human thought processes can influence the adoption of sustainable behaviors and promote corporate sustainability.

Think about the messages you’re giving as a business, and how these can be tweaked to empower employees and consumers to drive sustainable business development.