With Brett Jenks, CEO of Rare
Take a minute to think about something that you aren’t doing but know you should do.
Now consider why you aren’t doing it. I bet you can think of several reasons.
When thinking about how to address changes to individual action, it often starts and ends with raising awareness and building knowledge.
However, the issue with this approach is that both knowledge and awareness only go so far if you’re looking to make a change.
Unfortunately, for many of us who want to make a change for our communities and planet, simply informing people is often not enough to change their behavior.
For this episode of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Cory interviews Brett Jenks, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Rare, which is an organization that is dedicated to utilizing behavioral insights to effectively encourage individuals to take action to help the environment.
Environmental concerns, such as climate change, can often feel so monumental that one person’s actions seem trivial. However, individual actions can have a major impact, especially when they converge into collective action. This post will explore why individual actions matter and how utilizing behavioral science can improve the effectiveness of sustainability campaigns.
Why is Individual Action Important for Sustainability?
Environmental sustainability is a multi-faceted issue that requires a multi-faceted approach to be successful. While individual action is not a substitute for broader legislation or cultural shifts, it is an integral component to both of these things and a necessary facet to achieve true sustainability.
Often, legislation is introduced because of individual action, such as voting or other grassroots movements, and many policies or laws must be adopted through individual action to have an impact. This means that changes to individual behavior are necessary for large-scale changes; there is no collective action without individual action.
The UN IPCC report even stated that “changes in lifestyle, behavior patterns, and management practices can contribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors.”
Research indicates that 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (US) is attributable to residential energy use. Additionally, commercial buildings consume 35% of all electricity in the US. Considering how large these percentages are, changes here can impact the overall contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions and help us to reach the Paris Agreement targets at the national level.
Building Environmental Identities
Another major benefit of encouraging changes to behavior is building an environmental identity. An environmental identity is where a person sees themselves as someone who takes action to improve the environment. Identities are persistent and can impact behavior over long periods of time, which is something that can otherwise be difficult to target and measure.
Self-perception theories suggest that when people engage in behaviors, the action itself starts to shape their perception of themselves. This means that an initiative that targets a behavior, such as buying carbon offsets or using reusable cups, can start to create an identity that makes people more likely to engage in similar behaviors in the future. In addition, it can create something called behavioral momentum, where one behavior leads to other, more complex behaviors.
Individual to Collective Action
Moreover, individual actions can help to shift collective action. As Brett mentioned to Cory during the interview, “That’s what’s possible when you embrace individual behavior to push collective action. So, from designated drivers and reducing drunk driving to restoring the ocean, these things can work in some really significant ways.”
A recent article in Sierra succinctly explains why individual action is needed in addition to larger collective action. “Ultimately, a personal action versus political action binary is unhelpful. The environmental movement needs to sustain a way to do both: agitate and organize for systemic change while also still encouraging individual behavior changes.”
As shown, although targeting individual behavior is a critical step to ensure that we can achieve our sustainability goals, it is often not considered when developing a holistic sustainability plan. Let’s look at why behavior is either not always targeted or targeted ineffectively, and how science can be incorporated to create more holistic, effective sustainability initiatives.
What Does it Take to Actually Change Behavior?
Sometimes, considering making individual changes to behavior can be overwhelming. During the podcast, Brett discussed the “Tragedy of the Commons” in protecting the earth: “And so if you think of the problem that way, it becomes absolutely overwhelming to consider how you get seven and a half going on 10 billion people to individually and collectively take responsibility for our shared endowed nature.”
To make individual changes feel less overwhelming and shed light on what really works, we can break down this huge issue into more digestible bites.
Why Knowledge isn’t Enough
That feeling of being overwhelmed can cause well-intentioned leaders to default to what they know. Unfortunately, the most common tactic to change behavior has historically been information-intensive campaigns that assume that knowledge and awareness will lead to behavior change.
This means that campaigns end up looking a lot like this:
While raising awareness and increasing knowledge of problems can be important goals, they are not direct mechanisms for behavior change. Although knowledge and awareness are precursors to a change in behavior, they are often not enough to effectively alter behavior. This is because there are many other reasons that prevent people from taking action. We will discuss this in detail later.
Defaulting to what is familiar is easy, which is why many choose this path. However, to truly effect change, social and behavioral sciences need to be utilized. Even though this can require more time and energy, ultimately, it’s important to consider the return on investment (ROI) of both ineffective and effective campaigns. We need urgent action, and there is no time to waste on ineffective campaigns. Therefore, the only option is to do something different than what has traditionally been done.
Role of Social and Behavioral Sciences
If information-intensive campaigns don’t effectively change behavior, what does work?
This is where science comes in.
Brett discussed during the podcast how Rare uses science to develop initiatives, calling them behavioral insights:
“Behaviors are social and contagious. That’s the human condition. And so the question becomes, how do you leverage those behavioral insights?”
These insights are based on research in both social and behavioral sciences. For decades, why and how humans behave has been a fascinating, and sometimes controversial, research question. Those decades of research have shed light onto all kinds of “mysteries” of the human condition: from why we agree to things that are clearly incorrect and how likely we are to inflict pain on another person when asked to the stages that we go through to start a new behavior and how habits are formed.
While the social dimensions of humans and our individual behavior have been extensively studied over time, this research is often not put into practice. Luckily, practical models for behavior change have been developed recently that utilize the findings from these studies to effectively target behavior. A practical approach is key to encouraging individual actions through campaigns and initiatives, as without this, you could get lost in the theoretical details. Although these details may be interesting, they don’t get the job done.
Why Audience Research is a Must
To effectively transform individual action into collective action, you must be able to target the behavior of your audience accurately. One of the most crucial steps in developing an initiative that targets individual action is audience research. Understanding who your audience is, much like when creating and maintaining a business, ensures that you use tools that are relevant and necessary.
Although audience research doesn’t need to be extensive, it is important to consider what you expect from an ROI standpoint and how much of an impact you are looking to make. This research can be as simple or in-depth as you want; however, measurable results will reflect how meaningful the data was when collected. If conducting audience research is out of your realm of expertise, partnering with a social scientist can be helpful at this stage.
Additionally, keep in mind that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Conducting a brief literature review can reveal similar initiatives that have been developed by other organizations. Their efforts can guide what questions to ask and provide an outline for your program.
Conducting Audience Research
To better understand what motivates (benefits) and prevents (barriers) your audience from taking action, barrier and benefit data should be collected. It’s important not to assume—we all know what they say about assuming! Leaders often believe that they know why something is or isn’t happening, only to find out through research that they were wrong.
An effective program aims to reduce barriers while increasing benefits. However, these barriers and benefits need to be related to your audience, not you. If you make assumptions and they are wrong, you’ll be left scratching your head wondering why it isn’t working.
Understanding these barriers and benefits is important for two main reasons:
- Barriers and benefits change according to the level of behavior, which means that related behaviors (such as recycling glass versus plastic) can have different barriers and benefits.
- Social science tools are selected depending on what is uncovered in this analysis.
Audience Research in Action
Imagine that you are targeting the environmental impact of greenhouse gases by encouraging your staff to reduce emissions from driving by carpooling or taking the bus. When you conduct the audience (staff) research, you find that carpooling and bus riding have very different barriers and benefits. The barriers for carpooling include a lack of motivation to do so and forgetting to get in touch with colleagues to arrange it. The barriers for taking the bus include the location of bus stops and cost.
This example shows that although these are related behaviors (emissions reductions), they vary significantly regarding why staff members are or aren’t engaging in these daily actions. For example, it doesn’t make sense to use tools that increase motivation for carpooling when addressing taking the bus since this wasn’t a barrier. Instead, you would choose the tool that gets the job done—in the words of Maslow, “to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In this case, choosing the right tool is based on what your audience told you they needed and not just the “hammer” that you may be familiar with.
It’s important to remember that a different target audience may have different barriers and benefits. What works for staff may not work for vendors or clients, and upper-level staff may vary significantly from entry-level employees. It’s important to be aware of any major differences when analyzing your data.
Common Social Science Tools that Effect Change
Now that we’ve covered the first steps to targeting individual action, let’s take a look at the most common social science tools that effect change.
These tools include several powerful social dynamics that not only help to change individual actions but ultimately support changes on the societal and cultural levels. This is where the influences of individual actions become a collective action. As Brett mentions in the podcast, “Their behavior represents a tipping point for the market. It represents a tipping point for collective action on the individual behaviors.”
It’s important to note that each of these tools are used for specific barriers and benefits, and there are best practices that dictate their application. For more information on when to appropriately apply these tools, this resource will help.
- Social norms—Perhaps the most powerful tool on this list is the impact of social norms on people’s behavior. Social norms are essentially “peer pressure” and the “everyone’s-doing-it” adage.
Importantly, social norms tell people how to react or behave in a particular situation. A recent example of this is the toilet paper crisis of 2020. Amid an incredibly uncertain time, someone, somewhere thought that purchasing extra toilet paper would be a good idea. Not knowing what else to do, others saw this behavior and joined in, which left many of us wondering whether we should purchase bidets! Source
During his interview with Cory, Brett mentions that this same concept was demonstrated in a research study: “What started to move the meter was whether you thought other people expected you to adopt these behaviors. What moved it even further, in fact, the most was observing anyone else adopting these behaviors.”
Social norms are powerful, but if they are used incorrectly, they can encourage the wrong behavior. Typically, social norms are used in conjunction with other tools to promote visible behaviors, such as getting solar panels installed on your home or bringing reusable bags to the grocery store.
- Social diffusion—This tool is often used in conjunction with social norms to encourage the adoption of a behavior. Social diffusion is embodied in the infamous “influencers” of today—people with some sort of following become an “early adopter” of something and encourage others to join them. That adoption is made through social diffusion (which eventually creates social norms).
Best practices indicate that social diffusion works best when the “influencer” is both well-known and well-respected. To create a successful program that targets a specific action for your selected audience, the influencer should be well-known and well-respected within that community, not just generally. Social diffusion is useful if you are trying to get people to adopt a new behavior and they lack the motivation to do so.
- Commitments—These are commonly known as pledges. Commitments are utilized when there is a lack of motivation to engage in the behavior. One example may be a commitment to eat less meat if your audience research indicated that there was a lack of motivation to do this. Commitments tap into self-perception theories—if a person says that they will do something, they are far more likely to actually do it than someone who does not make this statement.
Best practices indicate that a public, durable commitment is the most effective at influencing behavior. An example of this for eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods would be to have members of the target audience sign commitment cards that are placed under a photo of themselves and located in an area where they would consider eating less meat, such as a shared kitchen area. This public display creates a social norm when multiple people join the initiative and reminds the participants of their statement to reduce environmental impacts through their food choices.
- Prompts—These help people to remember things that they may forget. Examples include reminders to bring your reusable bags into a store or turn your computer off at the end of the day.
Best practices indicate that a prompt should be displayed as near as possible to the action that needs to be remembered. It is not helpful to be reminded to bring your bags into the store when you are watching TV at night!
- Competition—This can be used to generate interest and support for various one-time behaviors. An example of this is the Gorillas on the Line project, which is supported by multiple Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities and promotes cell phone recycling to save gorillas from mining-related habitat destruction.
Although competition can be intense and generate a lot of excitement (motivation), it is usually short-lived. For example, creating a competition to encourage employees to carpool may not have lasting effects if other barriers are not addressed.
- Incentives—This is a common tool that can be misused. Although incentives can motivate people to engage, they can create extrinsic rewards for daily actions that, if removed, may stop the behavior from continuing.
Like competitions, incentives, such as a tax credit for purchasing electric vehicles, may be helpful for one-time behaviors. Brett discusses during his interview why you often need more than incentives to see lasting changes in behavior: “Even if you had comprehensive climate legislation and lots of incentives, you would still—much like drunk driving, much like family planning, much like cigarettes and smoking cessation—you would still need major investments in behavior change, not just economic incentives.”
Putting it all together
Although behavior change can be daunting, recognizing the best practices that can be used to increase effectiveness is half the battle. By utilizing science-backed approaches, your business can become a leader in sustainability and transform personal actions into systemic change.
Rare: Inspiring change so people and nature thrive
Brett Jenks, CEO at Rare
Brett Jenks has been the CEO of Rare for over 20 years and has helped to grow the company by 3,000%. He has recognized the importance and value of utilizing behavior change theories to address conservation issues globally.
Brett’s background in journalism and ecotourism motivated him to make lasting impacts on biologically diverse countries. In 2017, Brett received the Rose-Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism due to his commitment to the environment.
“Just as you’re thinking about your infrastructure, your travel, your servers. Your energy within your offices, your heating, your cooling, your HVAC, your supply chains, your shipping. Think about the lifestyles of helping your employees live your corporate values“ — Brett Jenks
How You can Target Individual Actions Effectively
- Choose your target action. The first step to developing a program is knowing exactly what you are targeting. During his interview, Brett suggests starting with establishing your net zero commitments: “Look around at your peers and see who is going net zero, because it’s going to be the leaders in your space…that ship is sailing right now. So, you want to jump on it.” Additionally, check out Rare’s Make It Personal page to see which behaviors they have identified as having the largest climate impacts. These are great places to get started!
- Conduct “audience” research. Although this step is critical, it frequently gets left out. To be a leader in this space, conducting audience research to identify the barriers and benefits regarding the action you’ve chosen will set you apart and set you up for (measurable) success.
- Build an environmental identity/culture. Starting with something that seems small is fine if done effectively. Although building an environmental culture at your business may take some time, if done well, it will elevate those small, individual actions and result in major changes for the environment. Brett suggests looking into Rare’s Green Benefits, which incentivizes employees to take high-impact climate and sustainability actions.
- Lead by example. As a leader of your company and possibly your industry, your behavior matters too. As discussed earlier, seeing other people engaging in a behavior is a powerful way to change other people’s actions. Use your own influence for good and showcase the ways that you are taking action for the environment.
Closing: Climate Action Starts with Individual Action
“Everything that is humanity, anything that makes you cry or sing or shout with joy has come from something that’s been invented due to this period of climate stability” — Brett Jenks
The importance and urgency to take action for our planet has never been more salient. What we do today will make a difference, and we can make great changes one step at a time. Although the pressure to change can be overwhelming at times, it’s important to remember that the goal is progress rather than perfection, and we can continue to improve as we move forward.
Brett makes this sentiment clear to Cory during the podcast: “So the key is to not get overwhelmed by the headlines, but to have this sort of practice that says every day, let’s be grateful for the progress we’re making. And let’s do more.”
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Dan Heath – Bright spots
- Solutions Journalism – David Bornsteen
- Gregg Sparkman and Elke Weber – Stanford Researchers
- Erik Thulin – Center for Behavior at RARE researcher
- David Grinspoon – Earth in Human Hands
- Breaking Boundaries on Netflix
- Ezra Kline podcast
- Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (sci-fi)
- Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
- Switch by Dan Heath & Chip Heath
- John Marshall – Potential Energy
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Nicolette is the president of EnvARK Innovators, a startup nonprofit dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of wildlife conservation initiatives through the use of social and behavioral science.
Nicolette received her undergraduate degree in Psychology with a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from California State University Sacramento and completed her Master of Science in Environmental Sciences at Oregon State University. Nicolette loves gardening, hiking, and all things sustainability!