Putting behaviour change at the forefront of your sustainability programmes

In recent years, the case for environmental change has comprised of a mixture of internal and external, “stick and carrot” factors, from fiscal measures and competitor innovation through to policy and legislation. However, since central government legislated for the UK to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 this has now become the most prominent driver for change.

The sustainability step changes which organisations will need to make to achieve net zero will rely on stakeholders changing their individual, everyday behaviours. For several years, Harvard business school have been studying sustainable consumption and their research revealed that for one organisation, almost 70% of its greenhouse gas footprint depends on which products customers choose and whether they use and dispose of them in a sustainable manner.

A key element to successfully driving environmental change is recognising the impact that engagement can have on behaviour changes within organisations and their stakeholders  to understand how best to deliver them. Engagement should not be an afterthought, but a theme running throughout any environmental transformation programme as demonstrated in the diagram below. So how can organisations make the case for a paradigm shift in behaviour that net zero requires?  

For housing providers, after customers, employees are the most significant stakeholders to securing environmental change. Like with any organisational transformation programme, successful engagement with stakeholders relies on four key elements:

  1. An understanding of pressures for change
  2. A clear, shared vision of environmental response
  3. Resource to implement that response
  4. An implementation plan for change, with clear actionable steps

When designing environmental or net zero change programmes, it is easy to adopt a “decide – announce – defend (DAD)” model to save time. This approach instead is likely to create negative resistance from stakeholders and time spent defending decisions. Instead, by involving employees up front, so they can question, understand, and propose ideas, via a “engage – deliberate – decide” approach, a more conducive environment is created to design robust plans with a new constituency of supporters.  

A housing provider’s employees all need to be participating in a continual improvement movement. The environmental behaviour change across the organisation must be sustainable and have a proven track record in delivering environmental improvements. Taking time to understand what motivates and influences employees provides insight to design appropriate engagement and implementation plans. 

Research has shown that attitudes towards the environment explain less than 20% of the differences between low-impact choices and high-impact ones. Organisations should therefore look to turn their efforts to understanding all six sources of influence[1], not just personal motivation. These six sources are structured under two categories, “motivation” and “ability”, which need to be addressed at the personal level, social level, and structural level.  The more sources which can be utilised across an environmental transformation programme the more powerful the behaviour change will be. 

The example below sets out how an organisation can comprehensively map its carbon footprint and monitor improvements made through the prism of the six sources of influence with their employees.

Environmental change can sometimes occur  from making snappy decisions such as rolling out new technologies and changing resource suppliers. However, as this article has demonstrated, the main enabler to full environmental change is people and how they behave. 

Before designing a net zero programme of works, Altair recommend that organisations take stock of who the main stakeholders are for driving environmental improvements through behaviour change. It is therefore vital to build time into programmes to enable a comprehensive understanding of stakeholder motivations and abilities. With this insight, effective and bespoke implementation engagement plans can be designed and rolled out to facilitate environmental change.

If you would like support on how to design and drive behaviour change activities across your net zero programmes, please contact: annabel.gray@altairltd.co.uk or matt.mccormackevans@altairltd.co.uk

For more information on our Sustainability offering click here.


[1] Grenny, J. Patterson, K. Maxfield, D. 2013. ‘Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change’.