The rights and wrongs of achieving sustainability in your business

There are a number of conventional wisdoms to achieving sustainability that behavioural research would suggest could be false hypotheses. In this article we look at these myths and how to overcome them, highlighting the traits that real-world case studies provide on how to get them right.

Myth #1

Wrong: People just need educating and then they will take action! But just because you have shared information, don’t think people will act upon it.

Katie Patrick in her book “how to save the world”, contrasted the education approach versus a behaviour based approach:


Education approach

Put up facts about waste on posters and do a leaflet drop on staff desks

Get an environmental leader to talk about impacts (of not taking action)

Go to a conference on the topic

Ask staff to watch videos on the topic

Write on the company blog about the intention to reduce waste

Behaviour approach

Give everyone in the office something that will change their behaviour (like a reusable water bottle to save plastic)

Install equipment that makes it easy for those new bottles to be used

Get everyone to write a pledge to use these new facilities and display them prominently in the office

Add a smiley/sad face next to the new equipment when usage goes up or down

Chart the change in usage over time and display the results for all employees to see

So the false hypothesis is that the education approach on its own will be successful.

Myth #1: Right: How action can drive belief – why the average person in England now buys around three single-use carrier bags a year from the main supermarkets, compared with around 140 in 2014.

The starting point to building better habits was the government introducing a charge for plastic bags – that had previously been provided as an unlimited free supply at supermarket checkouts.

Government data shows that billions of harmful plastic bags have been stopped from blighting our towns and countryside thanks to the single-use carrier bag charge.

  • The 5p charge was introduced in supermarkets in 2015 and since then usage at the main retailers has dropped by a staggering 97%
  • Meanwhile, over £200 million has been voluntarily donated by retailers to good causes in that time.

In this scenario education (around the need to reduce plastic waste) we reinforced by a financial incentive to change habits. It was a meaningful first step, and it worked.

Myth #2

Wrong: Up to 98% of environmental news stories are negative in nature. Implicit is the assumption that increasing people’s awareness, concern or fear of climate change are necessary precursors for action.

  • This approach fails to result in an ‘ability to act’, because raising concern and calling for urgent action does little to help people figure out how to respond concretely
  • This inability to act is because the framing of how to respond to climate action is too narrow between consumer choice and climate activism, which leads to passionate disagreements about which forms of action are meaningful and which are not.

The false hypothesis is that environmental fear is a powerful motivator to act – which is not true for a large proportion of the population. 

Myth #2 Right: In real life, the relationship between beliefs and behaviour often goes in the opposite direction: our actions change our beliefs, awareness and concerns through a process of self-justification

  • As one action leads to another, an internal process of self-persuasion goes hand in hand with a deepening engagement and self awareness of knowing how to act. 
  • One important source of learning is from the actions of others. This expands the current dominant meanings of climate ‘activism’ to incorporate a wider perspective of practices that people can engage in as members of a community – at work and at home

In this scenario positive role models have a greater impact on acceptance of the need to change for a large proportion of the population. Neuroscientist tell us that telling stories of others taking action is a better way to explain the problem than just starting with the issue.

Myth #3

Wrong: when it comes to taking actions, people do what they say. However, this is difficult, because of the need to overcome the intention-action gap. 

The Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme identifies a mismatch between what people pledged to do and their actions. For example, they found that:

  • 25% of Europeans say that they will lease (rather than buy) an electrical or electronic product, whereas 1% have ever done so
  • 40% of Europeans say that they buy and second hand electrical or electronic product, whereas 6% have ever done so
  • And 77% of Europeans claim to make an effort to repair broken electrical or electronic products, but 45% do not seek information on repairability when purchasing such products

In this scenario the false hypothesis is that well intentioned pledges do not translate into direct action – there is a noticeable drop-off when it comes to results.

Right: Consumers make a conscious effort to bridge the intention-action gap when three things are true:

  1. By changing the way they make decisions:
  • Living by values – understanding how each and every purchase decision impacts the sustainability intention, and looking for the opportunities to make a change
  • Use the ‘why’ as a motivator – raising sustainability as a conscious decision making bias to drive changes in behaviour
  1. By having an achievable plan:
  • Start with the easiest thing to change – as an actionable first step
  • Break down sustainability intentions – into manageable set of personal actions
  1. By overcoming setbacks:
  • Learn from mistakes – don’t ‘beat yourself up’ for every missed opportunity, instead understand what could be done differently next time
  • Buddying up – do something new with a friend – form an accountability pair – to encourage and support each other

In this scenario, sustainability advocates like Jen Gale sum it up as “Our brains resist change…. the more sustainable change can be the less convenient…. to overcome this we need do one thing, one step at a time, and mind the gap” 

Source: Sustainable(ish) podcast –

A case study of getting it right – reinforcing targets to drive adoption

Sustainability targets have a role to play but are not a guarantee of achieving that outcome of themselves.

A good real world case study of this is the aviation company Virgin Atlantic that wanted to reduce fuel and carbon emissions. In 2014, the Fuel Efficiency and Sustainability teams at the airline partnered with academics from the University of Chicago (UC) and London School of Economics (LSE). 

They ran control tests across three different options:

  1. Giving pilots accessible information on their performance so that they could compare their score with peers 
  2. Giving pilots targets to meet along with feedback on how they are doing
  3. Offering pilots the ability to nominate a charity to receive a donation if they met their targets

The findings were that it was the combination of all three initiatives that led to pilots having the greatest level of task satisfaction with 80%+ wanting to find out more about how to increase fuel efficiency.

The resulting behavioural changes of the combined programme across 110,000 data points from over 40,000 unique flights delivered:

  • Over 7,700 metric tons of fuel saved over the eight-month experimental period
  • US$ 6.1 million saved in fuel costs (in 2014 prices)
  • 24,500 metric tons of CO2 abated.

This rigorous research study is innovative in tracking the separate impacts of basic information, personalised targets, and social incentives on precise and well-defined measures of workplace performance in a high-stake setting. 


The key learning points from a behavioural change perspective that can be applied in any workplace sustainability initiative are: 

Visual performance and social recognition can be effective for sustained

Influencers are key messengers – peers who ‘look like us’ or are relatable

The power of norms – humans are driven to compare themselves to others (whose characteristics or circumstances are relevant to theirs) 

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