A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) asked what it would take for action on climate change to be ‘mainstreamed’. The IPPR conducted research with ‘Now’ people – perceived as leaders of public opinion and a supposed barometer for the acceptability of behavioural norms. A key conclusion was that for these trend-setters to change their behaviour, there would have to be something in it for them. That something, according to the IPPR, was the promise of financial gain for their adventures in sustainability.
On these pages, Tim Holmes has already questioned some of the methodological assumptions of the study, and the predictable media response to it. But there is a further problem with the logic of the report that raises a serious communication challenge for environmental campaigners: Using money as a motivator of sustainable behaviour simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
First things first – no-one is denying that financial considerations are not an enormous influence on behaviour. They clearly are – every time you decide to get up extra-early to get a cheaper train, you are making a decision based on how much it costs you. The findings of the IPPR report back this up. Their participants expressed a desire to save money, and felt that the prospect of saving money would make them more likely to engage in sustainable behaviour.
So – people do things because of financial reasons, and would be more likely to be green if it saved them money. Why not give the people what they want? Tell the world that saving energy will save them money!
There’s only one slight problem with this insight – sustainable behaviour doesn’t always come cheap. Certainly, there are times when saving energy also saves money (in general using less means spending less). But there are plenty of green behaviours that cannot easily be packaged as financially attractive. Taking the train to the Costa Del Sol is not cheaper than flying there – the low-carbon choice is not always the low-cost option. In the future we might hope that the ‘polluter pays’ principle is accurately reflected in the prices of the world’s commodities, but for now being green isn’t necessarily the cheapest game in town. It’s a tough sell during a recession, which is what the IPPR study found. But what’s the alternative – to lie?
Of course, you might imagine that once people have started ‘going green’ (tempted into some sustainable behaviours by the prospect of saving money), a momentum will be created that will propel them into other green actions – even if they’re not so cost effective. However, as Tom Crompton at the WWF has documented in detail, this assumption is something of a myth. Some key social-psychological theories and empirical evidence simply do not support the idea that people will spontaneously progress from ‘simple and painless’ behaviour changes to less simple (and perhaps more financially painful) steps in the future. If anything, the reinforcement of the link between saving money and sustainable behaviours is likely to act as a barrier to further changes in the future – when the money saving stops, so does the behaviour.
And as if it wasn’t bad enough that the link between saving money and saving the environment was tenuous, evidence from studies conducted by Ken Sheldon in the US suggests that people with materialistic values (that is, people who value money, possessions, and power) are the least likely to engage in environmental behaviour. In an experiment where people could divide up environmental resources in whichever way they chose, highly materialistic people exhibited more environmentally destructive behaviour. Unfortunately, emphasising the link between money and sustainable behaviour fails on every level.
So – what’s the alternative? The solution advocated by Tom Crompton, Joe Brewer and other contributors to the Identity Campaigning website is to promote so-called ‘intrinsic’ motivations for engaging in environmental behaviour (such as the interconnectedness of humans and nature) – because this will lead to longer lasting and more embedded behavioural changes. This approach is appealing, as it is difficult to dispute that if more people led lives that were based on respecting the environment and valuing nature, pro-environmental behaviour would be more prevalent.
However, while this vision of value-based sustainability is a desirable goal, attempting to translate it into reality is a challenge. Governments and NGOs are wary of being seen to dictate values to the electorate (never mind that the values of consumption-based growth are promoted every second of every day – they’re so embedded in the fabric of society they’re invisible). And on a practical level, it's awkward and unfamiliar for most people (campaigners or otherwise) to link mundane behaviours like driving a car to abstract concepts like ‘valuing nature’ or ‘intrinsic motivations’.
There is a compromise which acknowledges that money matters in people’s decision-making, but doesn’t constantly crank-up the link between saving money and sustainable behaviour. The fact is that people will work out for themselves whether something is in their financial interest – they don’t need campaigners to do it for them. Far better is to use money more subtly – by removing financial barriers to behaviour change (such as governments offering subsidised loft or cavity wall insulation).
The message here is not that installing insulation will save you money (although it will), or that the reason for caring about climate change is that it will be good for your wallet. It is that green intentions will be reciprocated by the government. Here the lower cost encourages participation, but doesn’t reduce sustainable behaviour to a cost-benefit analysis that in the long run is doomed to fail. The idea of reciprocation also fits in well with the sort of values that are linked with pro-environmental behaviour – people who care about fairness also tend to care about the environment.
We can't ignore the fact that money motivates behaviour, but we can approach it in a more sophisticated way. We know that people are constrained by financial concerns, but that promoting the link between saving money and saving the environment is problematic in the long run. Could the idea of reciprocation permit both of these issues to be addressed?
 Sheldon, K.M., & McGregor, H. (2000) Extrinsic value orientation and the tragedy of the commons. Journal of Personality 68, 383-411.
 Schultz, P.W., Gouveia, V.V., Cameron, L.D., Tankha, G., Schmuck, P. & Franek, M. (2005). Values and their Relationship to Environmental Concern and Conservation Behavior. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 36, 457-475.