Fighting climate change with behavioural insights

Polar bear standing on a piece of ice.
Posted 2020-11-17
There has never been a better time to shift consumers to a more sustainable lifestyle according to behavioural insights experts. When people are confronted with major change, such as a global health pandemic, they tend to evaluate and reconsider their habits and choices. The interruption of regular routines opens the door to the possibility of new behaviours. 

This was one of the findings shared at the BIG Difference BC conference, an annual event that brings together members of academia, government, industry and non-profits to hear the latest research on how to influence behaviours and consumer decisions. 

Co-hosted by UBC’s Decision Insights for Business and Society (DIBS), the provincial government’s BC Behavioural Insights Group, and WorkSafeBC, the conference was held online for the first time and attracted a record 1,200 participants from across Canada and around the world. 

Rishad Habib, a PhD student in the Marketing and Behavioural Science Division at UBC Sauder, gave a presentation titled, Changing Climate Change Behaviours.

“The challenge for climate-friendly behaviour is that it’s often not the norm,” says Habib. “But there are things we can do to make pro-environmental behaviours more normative.”

Speaking on behalf of her research team, which includes fellow DIBS researchers David Hardisty, Katherine White and Jiaying Zhao, Habib introduced the audience to a framework for unlocking behaviour change.

SHIFT graphic

“SHIFT is an acronym for five psychological factors that make consumers more inclined to engage in pro-environmental behaviours,” says Hardisty, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Marketing and Behavioural Science Division at UBC Sauder. “It’s essentially a toolkit, validated by research.”

The easiest way to grasp the framework is to see it activated in real-world settings. 

Social influence and habit formation

Habib described to the audience a community campaign to promote the use of solar panels. Advocates who had installed solar panels on their own homes and could speak to their benefits recruited 63% more residents than advocates who had not installed solar panels. 

This finding supports the theory that we are influenced by the behaviours, attitudes and expectations of those around us. But despite our copycat tendencies, nudging us toward sustainability is still surprisingly difficult. 

“The domain of sustainability is tricky because you’re often asking people to take on some kind of cost to self – a choice or behaviour that takes more time, more money or more effort,” explains White, a member of the SHIFT research team who is also a Professor with UBC Sauder’s Marketing and Behavioural Science Division.

“To make sustainable actions repeatable, the right supports need to be in place.”

Examples of habit-forming supports can be found in our neighbourhoods, such as the coffee shop that provides a discount to customers who bring a mug from home, and the grocery store that discourages plastic bags by offering fabric shopping bags for sale at the check-out. 

Additional levers include signage and other media messages that not only prompt consumers to opt for the non-polluting, ecologically-responsible choice, but also provide feedback on how their actions are benefiting the planet. 

Individual self and feelings and cognition

The SHIFT model also states that people are highly motivated to maintain a positive view of themselves, and will engage in green behaviors that make them feel good. As such, marketing campaigns that emphasize “what’s in it for you” may be successful. 

Another powerful emotion that can be leveraged to lead people in a certain direction is guilt. Research shows that consumers will make choices to avoid something called anticipated guilt.

In Halifax, a municipal waste reduction campaign introduced clear plastic bags for household garbage collection. By making the waste visible to neighbours and city workers, residents began separating and recycling more of their waste, resulting in a 31% reduction in the volume of garbage that went to the landfill.  

In Calgary, a campaign conducted by Katherine White to encourage residents to leave fresh grass clippings on their lawns, rather than bagging them for garbage collection, was going nowhere. Despite clear messaging about the many benefits of this green behaviour, homeowners stubbornly clung to their old habits until a flyer was distributed that encouraged them to think of the community – their collective self.

The flyer said: “Your neighbours are grasscycling. You can, too. Most people are finding ways to reduce the materials going to the landfill—you can contribute by grasscycling.” Within two weeks, the number of grasscycling households nearly doubled.


The fifth pillar of the SHIFT framework addresses the problem of sustainability being an abstract concept, where the benefits of making pro-environmental choices seem fuzzy. 

David Hardisty and colleagues from UBC’s DIBS are currently working with BC Hydro to ensure a new campaign about eco-wise laundry behaviours is clear, compelling and backed by evidence. 

“It’s great when we can measure a behaviour,” explains Hardisty. “With laundry, you can see a giant spike in energy usage when people use hot water and a hot dryer. You can also see the wear and tear on clothes over time. So we can show consumers that the energy and cost savings from adopting the new behaviour are worthwhile.”

Solving behaviour-based social challenges

The 2020 BIG Difference BC conference covered a number of social challenges in addition to sustainability and climate change, none more immediately pressing than COVID-19. Participants increased their understanding of how governments and health authorities are making public services more user-friendly through the application of behavioural insights.  

This growing discipline that combines scientific methods from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, economics and marketing is not only helping public institutions serve communities better, but it’s also helping businesses and non-profits reach their target audiences, and helping consumers make more informed decisions.