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Understanding behaviour change is central to building back better

By George Ames

Our skies are clearer, the air is fresher, and the roads (were) quieter; there is deep reflection, at least in some quarters, on how we can use this moment as a catalyst to permanently alter our lifestyles and create longer term environmental change.

But we won’t achieve it just with hope and wishful thinking. The population has not transformed into a commune of hemp wielding eco-warriors, our desire for frivolous luxuries has not been suddenly quashed, and, if we’re honest, the idea of jetting off to a far flung land to sit on a pristine beach whilst the ocean laps gently is pretty darn appealing right now.

But, in the language of behavior change, people and organisations are actively contemplating change. This moment of contemplation is the first and very important step on the journey to longer term behaviour change. A smoker doesn’t give up without quiet moments of reflection in the build up to ditching the fags. Obesity isn’t overcome without believing that a change is needed – and possible.

So that is where we are now. As a global population we are starting to imagine the end of our enforced ‘Dry January’ and either we emerge from it ready to get right back on it with our mates in a heady binge of carb imbibing joy, or we reflect on the good that has come from it and how we want to continue what we’ve started. Or perhaps it is a bit of both.

For behaviours to become sustained there are certain conditions required to make it happen. Cultural norming is one of the most powerful – a supportive community where action is welcomed and mirrored by others. As is reward, in whatever form this might take, be it financial, social, personal confidence or a sense of wellbeing and pride. Giving up fags is hard – so why do it if you don’t feel the benefits in one way or another. Leadership and permission are two other crucial ingredients, which is where progressive businesses can really make a difference.

This is why, with some optimism, ‘building back better’ has more chance of working than dry January does to make a genuine difference to the amount of alcohol you drink in a year. The cultural scene is set to do more and do better as our lives slowly clang back into gear. We are not entirely surrounded by mates waving their metaphorical pint glasses at us begging us to ‘just have one, for god’s sake’.

Now is the time for sustainability leaders to seize the moment, capitalise on the collective contemplation, and set about progressing stronger, deeper change. And we must not think that we can blind people with our SDG-ESG-Net-Zero jargon and expect them to willingly climb aboard. Why should they. It is up to us to speak to them in their language, be mindful of their targets and competing pressures and the stark economic realities. Who knows what a tonne of carbon looks like or means – but the cost of carbon, the savings from carbon reduction, that’s different. That’s far easier to get hold of.

It isn’t going to be an easy journey – the best ones rarely are – but it’s time to seize the day.