Environmental Attitude vs. Behavior: Why the Disconnect?

Published on May 13th, 2013 | by

energy auditing behavior changePeople frequently respond very positively to polling about environmental attitudes. Even in down years, a grand majority of people respond that they’re concerned about the environment (and/or describe themselves as “environmentalist” in attitude).

But the behavior often doesn’t follow the attitude, and it is perhaps the biggest missing link in creating real sustainable change. In the introductory workshop about Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Doug McKenzie Mohr described three programs that tried to help people turn their attitudes into behaviors.

First, an educator invited forty people to an energy efficiency workshop, and created a value perception by limiting attendees to the first forty people that called. The energy efficiency workshop educated people about how to save money on their energy bills and gave them a list of recommendations they could do in their homes. 40 people took the workshop. Of those, just 1 lowered hot water heater temp. 2 had wrapped their water heater in an insulating blanket. Only 8 of the 40 installed a high efficiency showerhead (and there was no price barrier–all 40 were given the high efficiency showerheads during the workshop).

The second program included a water-wise program, where participants were sent mailers about wasteful water use, the water-energy relationship, and conservation methods that would help them not only reduce their water bills, but also their impact. Net result? None.

The third program included surveys sent to a large proportion of residents, 94% of whom acknowledged that we all had a part to play in cleaning up litter. The researchers then placed litter right in front of the person’s front door, so they’d see it first thing in the morning when they left the house. The result? 2% of the people picked up the litter.

So what about doing the job for people? Programs in the U.S. to do energy audits and make concentrated recommendation lists to folks have seen little to no results. The government spent $760 per house, many billions of dollars, to provide free energy audits for households. In addition, to facilitate action, they also offered low/no interest loans for retrofits and a list of qualified contractors that could do things like insulation, weatherization, and the like. The results? Only 6% of people requested audits. Of those, only half acted on the recommendations given by the auditors. Total savings? 2-3%.

To make matters worse, people on the waiting list ended up doing 30% of the changes and upgrades before the audit came anyway. So overall, only 1% of the actual energy savings could be attributed to the program at all.

So how do we create more effective behavioral change programs? Check out Effective behavior change programs for sustainability, a 3 page summary of Doug McKenzie Mohr’s workshop on effective community based social marketing.

Photo from EnergyChangeMN on Flickr Creative Commons


About the Author

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride.
  • In my experience the problem with most employee engagement for sustainability is that it works against the grain of the prevailing company culture, trying to change it. So we get eco-cliches, switch it off stickers and guilt-trips which get ignored.

    I’ve formulated an approach I call ‘Green Jujitsu’ which seeks to work with the prevailing culture rather than against it. This fun animation illustrates why this works: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR8BnDxfVP8