Simple steps to save the environment may not make much difference

A simple step towards saving the environment may lead to more environment action … or not. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon

Many environmental organisations, governments and businesses rely on “positive spillover strategies” to drive pro-environmental behaviour change. These strategies rest on the assumption once someone has taken a “simple and painless” action - say, turning off their lights for an hour - it can spill over into more ambitious environmental behaviours. Such a belief essentially provides the foundation for campaigns that focus on “taking a few simple steps” or claiming that “every little bit counts”.

But critics of these campaigns argue that “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little”, especially in the face of today’s environmental challenges.

We believe that campaigns calling for simple behaviours with relatively small environmental benefit should only persist if there is evidence showing that they lead to more far-reaching and environmentally significant behaviours. But current evidence suggests that both positive and negative spillover effects arise from the initial performance of small and easy actions.

There are a few reasons that taking a simple, easy step might lead to more positive results. Some individuals get skills and knowledge from taking that first step. Some alter their self-perceptions, starting to see themselves as “concerned citizens”. Some want to be seen as acting consistently with their previous actions. The marketing equivalent is often referred to as the “foot-in-the-door” approach.

But things can also go the other way. Some people “rest on their laurels”. Taking small and easy steps can lead to individuals thinking they have “done their bit” for the environment. They justify their decision to take no further (and potentially far more important) action.

With evidence supporting both positive and negative spillover effects, programs that continue to target simple and painless actions gamble that positive spillover outcomes will be victorious. But how can we “increase the odds” of further positive action? Are certain behaviours or motivations more likely than others to encourage people on a journey of pro-environmental behavioural escalation?

In a recent report asking this very question, the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded that “We need to promote a range of behaviours as entry points in helping different groups to make their lifestyles more sustainable – including catalytic (or ‘wedge’) behaviours if identified through research.”

While we are some way off identifying catalytic behaviours and countering negative spillover, research is starting to reveal the importance of behaviours sharing certain characteristics to foster positive spillover effects. People are likely to see behaviours as similar when:

  • there are common characteristics between the behaviours: the skills required to do them, the level of difficulty, similarity between the behaviours themselves or the context in which they are undertaken

  • there are common motivations or goals: saving the environment, saving money or being seen as a good citizen. Many Australians are familiar with a situation where they were called on to be good citizens: widespread public, media and Government concern about decreasing water supplies in several cities led to significant reductions in water use. These reductions came through multiple behaviours with the common goal of saving water. We suggest that this common motivation may be key.

If this is true, it raises questions for campaigns that rely on one motivation to achieve behavioural changes and then hope that positive spillover will occur in other areas. For example, the Federal Government’s Clean Energy Future program focuses strongly on the financial rewards of the scheme. In the rolling sequence of headline stories at the top of the webpage, two of the four stories highlight financial benefits. Just below these rolling headings there is a calculator for estimating the financial assistance individuals are entitled to. It says, “HOW MUCH WILL I GET?”.

Behaviours that are externally motivated by the prospect of financial rewards and savings may work as catalysts for other behaviours that result in saving money or financial benefits. But they are unlikely to generate the internal motivation often required of positive spillover strategies focusing on the environment. The behaviours and motivations are too different.

There are many initiatives that emphasise, and in our opinion over-emphasise, the cost savings of reduced water, energy and waste, rather than environmental benefits.

Of course, it is naïve to think that appeals to environmental consciousness alone will result in the necessary changes. But if an environmental behaviour change campaign wants spillover - and many clearly do - then they need to set up campaigns where people take small, easy steps because they are concerned about the environment. If campaigns are all about saving money or other motivations, it is possible - indeed likely - that first simple step will also be the last.

Professor John Thøgersen will be visiting Monash University from April 23-27 as a guest of BehaviourWorks Australia. He will be giving a free public presentation entitled “When one pro-environmental behaviour leads to another… or not?”. RSVPs for this event have been extended to 21 April.

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