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Barriers to Change

Everyone recycles, right? Everyone saves water. Everyone catches public transport. Everyone grows their own food and buys their clothes and furniture from second-hand stores. Everyone is doing sustainability.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone was.

Alas…everyone isn’t.

Something separates the doers from the don’ts.  What inspires some people doesn’t inspire others. And where some people find open doors to change, others find barriers. So what is it that differentiates people who adopt sustainable behaviours from those who don’t?

There are countless ways to answer that question, many different frameworks and theories for explaining human behaviour. According to Doug McKenzie-Mohr and Will Smith (1999), community-based social marketing sheds some light on why people do – and do not – participate in actions for sustainability. According to their book, Fostering Sustainable Behaviour, there are generally three things that stop people from getting with the program:

  1. People simply don’t know about the activity and its associated benefits (eg. that household composting reduces waste to landfill)
  2. If people do know about the activity, they perceive challenges or barriers that prevent them from participating or engaging in that activity. With composting, for example, people might perceive it as expensive, inconvenient, smelly, or “disgusting”.
  3. If people know about the activity and don’t perceive significant barriers per se, they may believe that their current practice is easier as default behaviour. For example, they might perceive that putting food waste in their household rubbish bin is more straightforward than composting.

McKenzie-Mohr and Smith claim that the key to influencing people’s behaviour is to first understand the barriers to change and the benefits of action.  They imply three key ideas in their thesis:

  1. People naturally gravitate to actions that offer high benefits and few barriers.
  2. Perception of barriers and benefits varies significantly from one person to the next. In fact, what one person might perceive as a benefit, another person might perceive as a barrier.
  3. People exhibit competing behaviours. As individuals, we are compelled to choose between behaviours (to compost or not to compost). One behaviour must be lost (putting food waste in the rubbish) in order for another behaviour to survive (putting food waste in the compost).

Whilst this might sound straightforward, our need as environmental communicators and educators is to develop a compelling understanding of the perceived barriers (to changing behaviour) that people experience internally.  We also need to identify and clearly communicate the benefits of alternative behaviours. In doing so, we can operate with a deeper appreciation for the motivations and interests that underlie the choices people make – at home, in the marketplace, in the workplace.

As McKenzie-Mohr and Smith highlight, “if environmental programs are to be effective, we need to be able to deliver programs that remove barriers and enhance benefits for large segments of the population”. A critical step is to get a handle on “why” people do or do not engage in sustainability behaviours in the first place.

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