fostering sustainable behaviors book review

Book Review for “Fostering Sustainable Behavior”

“Fostering Sustainable Behavior” was written to provide resources to those designing and implementing sustainability initiatives, such as reducing waste, increasing energy efficiency, reducing water consumption, and altering transportation patterns. (p.x)

Fostering Sustainable Behavior >>>

Mackenzie-Mohr and Smith promote an effective concept called “community-based social marketing”. At first, I didn’t understand what this meant, and almost overlooked this book. I’m glad I didn’t! It is one of the most interesting and useful books I have found to help implement sustainability behavior changes. The examples they provide will make you think twice about ideas you have for making people do things differently.

For example, one utility company saw 3-4 times the number of households weatherize their dwelling when these techniques were used (p.xi). The book provides a plethora of examples to support the success of these techniques. It takes more than just awareness to get people to change behaviors. That’s what this book provides: the skills and techniques to make people change their behaviors. Most of the time, programs get created and deployed based on people’s experience and educated guess, not based upon how to address the actual resistance of the population. In fact, a multifaceted approach is required for making
sustainable behavior changes that last (p.7).

After reading this book, I understand why some of my past efforts were not as successful as I had planned.

Understanding why people change behaviors to be more sustainable can be summarized into three explanations (p.2):

  1. Do they know about the behavior and its benefits?
  2. Are there perceptions about the difficulty in implementing the change?
  3. Are there perceptions that it is easier or more beneficial to continue their current behavior?

For sustainable behaviors to be successfully adopted, we need to be able to understand which explanation(s) each segment of the population is struggling with. Based on those perceptions, we need to be able to provide programs that remove barriers and enhance benefits for a large percentage of those segments of the population (p.3). Easier said than done, but this book provides some great empirical examples of how this can be accomplished.

In general, there are four approaches that can be implemented (p.5):

  1. Increase the benefits
  2. Decrease the barriers
  3. Decrease the benefits of the competing behavior
  4. Increase the barriers of the competing behavior

Let’s consider a simple example of someone trying to reduce their fuel consumption.

The current behavior is driving to work. The new sustainable behavior is walking to work. Benefits for the new behavior are exercise, but it takes longer which takes time away from his family. Increasing the benefits could include nicer sidewalks or walking with a friend or listening to music while walking, which also improves health. Decreasing the old behavior can be accomplished through education about carbon emissions, or showing the cost savings of using less fuel, or highlighting the wasted time it takes to park his car at work. The book goes into a slightly different example, and adds more details on how to
incorporate some competing behaviors, like taking the bus or taxi to work instead of walking.

There were some surprising findings in the book. I’ll summarize some key points I found helpful…

– Informational/educational only campaigns have little to no effect on behavior (p.10). Even those that agree with statements about litter and recycling will leave the interview and walk past “planted” trash 98% of the time (p.11). This is primarily due to the diversity of barriers that people experience.

– People surveyed often over exaggerate the extent to which they engage in a activity (such as recycling). Some claim that they can install programmable thermostats, but when tested, they were unable to do so (p.25). Therefore, it is important to measure objective evidence (observations) as much as possible, and not to rely on people’s responses.

– Don’t assume the barriers to sustainable activities are already known. You must validate the barriers, otherwise you may be chasing the wrong issues, and won’t get the behavior changes (p.43). This might add additional upfront cost to your program, but it increases the return on investment, and increases the chance of a successful program (p.44).

– Getting people to commit and agree to a small, simple request can set the foundation to get them to make a larger commitment in the future (p.48).

– Getting a verbal commitment from people increases behavior changes (p.50). Use phrases such as:

  • “When should I follow up with you?”
  • “When will you have your bulbs replaced?”
  • “I’ll give you a call in one week to see how it’s going.”

– People who made a commitment to ride the bus more often, and were given free tickets were just as likely to actually ride the bus as those that only gave a commitment. Therefore, commitment is the most effective, and incentives do not seem to increase behavior changes. A study found that obtaining a signed commitment increased participation in recycling than receiving a flyer, personal visit or personal call alone (p.52).

– Increases in behavior occurred when people were involved physically in the energy audit (touching the attic insulation, touching an uninsulated water heater, etc)(p.54).

– Commitments to change behavior must be voluntary. If there is pressure to commit, then it won’t be effective (p.56).

– The book provides a checklist for gaining commitment (p.58):

    • Emphasize written over verbal commitments
    • Ask for public commitments
    • Seek groups’ commitments
    • Actively involve the person
    • Consider cost-effective ways to obtain commitments
    • Use existing points of contact to obtain commitments
    • Help people to view themselves as environmentally concerned
    • Don’t use coercion (commitments must be freely volunteered)
    • Combine commitments with other behavior change techniques

– Examples are provided with commitment ideas for specific behaviors, such as waste reduction, energy conservation, transportation and water conservation (p.59). These categories are used throughout the book.

– Forgetfulness is a common reason for lack of behavior. Use prompts and reminders when the person already performs the behavior, such as bringing cloth bags to the grocery store (p.61). The prompts need to be close and timely to the behavior to be most effective (p.62). A university implemented a program to drop and tilt their blinds to reduce heat in their offices. A letter request from the president, and a reminder from the custodians was effective, increasing participation from 10-67% (p.63). Prompts should be positive in nature, not negative (p.67). Examples of prompts are given on pages 67-70 to assist you with ideas for the four categories mentioned earlier.

Green “Turn Off When Done” Post-It Notes (5-pack, 250 notes)

– A study to conserve water in the showers was most effective when people modeled the behavior of turning off the water when using soap, instead of just posting signs in the shower (p.74). They use the term “community norms” to educate people on what the majority of people do, as most people like to conform with others (p.77). Examples of norms on page 80-81 include: adding gas mileage bumper stickers to fuel efficient vehicles, and communicating the % of people in your company who carpool to work.

– To capture the attention of people when persuading them requires a vivid, concrete and personalized message (p.84). Vivid information will likely stand out against all other information at a later time (p.85). If trying to explain the amount of water wasted in Toronto (for example), use local landmarks, like the Niagara Falls flow rate, or how much water would fill up the SkyDome (Rogers Centre).

– “Messages which emphasize losses which occur as a result of inaction are consistently more persuasive than messages that emphasize savings as a result of taking action” (p.90). Repeating threatening messages will be counter-productive unless it is coupled with empowering messages (p.92).

– Neighbors who committed to “grasscycle” and encouraged their neighbors to do the same were more likely to change their own behavior, and their neighbors behaviors (p.97).

– Effective communication techniques by category are provided on pages 101-102.

– Seattle was able to reduce their average number of garbage cans from 3.5 per household down to 1 as a result of a clear monetary incentive and easy recycling options (p.103). Bottle bills (redeemable 5-10 cent deposits) have been associated with a 68% reduction in litter in Oregon, 76% reduction in Vermont, and 82% reduction in Michigan (p.105).

– The most effective incentive programs anticipate and plan around people attempting to avoid the incentive. A good example is the bottle deposit, which can be redeemed by anyone, if it is thrown away or littered (p.113).

– Examples of incentives are provided on pages 114-115.

– Removing barriers are critical to changing behaviors. The city of Boulder, Colorado had to deal with mass transit barriers/concerns from their workers (women’s safety and access to a vehicle in emergency situations) by providing a free taxi service in these instances (p.116).

– Some barriers are perceptions, and not as much of a barrier after they participate in the activity, and realize that it is more convenient than they realized (p.119). Examples of solutions to external barriers are provided on pages 119-121.

– Use pilot (trial) studies on a small scale, before you implement anything at a community or large scale level, so you can work through problems and get personal feedback from those involved (p.128).

– There are three times during your program when you will need information from your community: 1) early on after completing literature reviews, 2) after barriers are identified, use phone surveys to gather more detailed information about the barriers, attitudes and current level of involvement, and 3) prior to any roll out of the program, using focus groups to provide feedback on the plan. There is also a lot of content around conducting surveys (which seem simple, but from my experience can get pretty complicated quickly). Some notes about surveys are below…

conducting a sustainability


Surveys are a popular way to gather data, so the book provides information and tips to consider.

When conducting surveys, there are six questions to determine key influences on behaviors (replace X with the behavior you are interested in)(p.35).

1) Barriers: What makes it difficult to do X?
2) Barriers: What makes it easy to do X?
3) Benefits: What positives are associated with doing X?
4) Benefits: What negatives are associated with doing X?
5) Social Norms: Who wants you to do X, and how much do you care about their opinion?
6) Social Norms: Who doesn’t want, or care if you do X, and how much do you care about their opinion?

– Make sure your survey questions are closed-ended, so they can be easily analyzed, and don’t take too long to conduct. You also need to consider the
different activities that make up a behavior. For example, composting involves collecting food waste, placing in composter, and stirring the compost. Each
activity may require individual questions (p.37).

– Don’t put labels on your response scales (for example 1-5, where 5 is highest). If you put very unlikely, unlikely, not sure, likely, and very likely next
to each number, that can restrict the responses more than just putting a label on each end (only put very unlikely next to 1, and very likely next to 5)

– If you want to segment your survey results (by region, job type, education background, etc), you’ll need at least 10-12 responses from each segment in
order to be able to analyze it and draw statistical conclusions (p.40).

– Use statistical experts to help develop and analyze your survey results. We would be happy to assist with your analysis, so contact us and let us help you
out (free for non-profit organizations)(p.43).

As I mentioned in the beginning, this is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to implement sustainable behavior changes. As a result, this blog has became very lengthy, but I hope you find it valuable, and consider getting a copy to read.

You can also check out the author’s website about “Community-Based Social Marketing

Fostering Sustainable Behavior >>>