With the current pace of environmental degradation, the transition of individual behaviour towards sustainability has become the need of the hour. With environmental awareness and education, more and more people aspire to shift towards sustainable behaviour. But they often find it challenging to alter the usual behavioural pattern and act in a pro-environmental manner.

Psychological research has provided insights highlighting that individuals continue with unsustainable behaviour even if they show deep concern for the environment. In contradiction with these findings, research has also provided evidence of how some individuals behave pro-environmentally out of their respect for the planet. Environmental psychology explores situations where sustainable behaviour becomes the most natural and easy choice.

In a review conducted in 2019, researchers identified 320 academic papers from consumer behaviour journals. Their review recognized five routes to transition towards pro-environmental behaviour – social influence, habits, individual self, feelings and cognitions, and tangibility – SHIFT.

How can social influence help?

As the saying goes, ‘monkey sees, monkey does’; humans are not significantly different. Social influence has always been an essential antecedent to our actions. Studies have shown that when people learn about how others behave, they change their behaviour accordingly. For example, people decreased their energy usage when they found out their neighbours were using less energy.

However, what happens when sustainable behaviour must evolve from scratch? For instance, how do we convince people to use electric vehicles when no one in their vicinity is using them? In this case, a social mascot may be instrumental.

How do you build sustainable habits?

It is a critical step towards sustainable behaviour as default. But to build lasting sustainable habits, individuals need to get rid of their existing practices. A change in life or starting point helps the transition to make good new habits. For example, when a person moves to a new place or starts a new job.

One way to cut down on bad habits is to penalize them. But this way has an escape route, for when the penalty is uplifted, the old habits make a comeback. For this to work, we need to make sustainable behaviour the easiest way of doing things, providing instant feedback to individuals on their actions, as feedback techniques have shown to work in most scenarios.

How to indulge the individual self in sustainable action?

Involving the individual self in pro-environmental action is critical. When individuals understand the value of their efforts, they are more likely to care about the environment. In this way, highlighting self-efficacy helps.

Consistency between intentions and actions is essential. So, when one effort is sustainable, there are more chances of the intention to snowball into other sustainable behaviours.

The concept of self is also to be noted here. If an individual perceives oneself as environmentally friendly, people work towards meeting their perceptions.

How do our feelings and cognitions play a role?

Feelings are crucial in our decision-making. Positive emotions such as happiness and contentment influence our behaviour. Contrary to this, fear and guilt are negative emotions that influence behaviour, but they must be used subtly to be effective. We often observe the overuse of negative emotions in the promotion of environment-friendly campaigns, which results in denial and learned helplessness or even opposite behaviour due to psychological reactance towards the current environmental condition. Considerately inducing the right emotions is necessary for promoting sustainable behaviour.

How does tangibility help in the transition to sustainable behaviour?

Tangibility becomes a big challenge for environmental issues. Due to the consequences spanning decades and even centuries, people care less about the abstract, distant outcomes. Therefore, we need to be sure that sustainability is tangible. For example, people felt more concerned when shown changes in a nearby glacier over one year rather than a graph of glacier changes throughout the world. The most significant conflict in such communication is the mismatch of individual consumption timescale with environmental timescale, which needs to be realized with better narratives and storytelling about the climate.

The SHIFT offers insights into transitioning to sustainable behaviour, but the picture is more extensive than this simplified version. Other than these factors, there are more to sustainable behaviour that also needs to be kept in mind, such as:

1. All behaviour is situational: Behaviour is a product of inner drives, and external conditions change when circumstances change.

2. Behaviour is most likely to take place if there are fewer barriers

3. Communicating normative information

4. Highlighting positive social cues for sustainable behaviour

5. Creating a network to support sustainable examples

6. Emphasizing personal relevance

The list may go on. However, starting small is the key to pro-environmental behaviours. The cumulative effect of small changes towards sustainable behaviour will have significant positive improvements.