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Tricks of the Trade – 4

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There’s a lot of talk about changing people’s behaviour.Talk about recycling and waste management. Talk about local economies and food production. Talk about public transport and greening community spaces. Talk, talk talk.

For some reason, a great many social change programs have relied on information as the principle weapon for mass distraction – distraction from the everyday activities that otherwise keep people glued to existing and typically unsustainable behaviours.  The problem, however, is that information alone is not a particularly effective weapon. It can misfire and miss its target. In isolation, it does little to inspire people to turn off the TV, change their shopping patterns, or spend time in nature. Sometimes information works of course, but not very often when it operates as the sole tool for social change.

Research demonstrates that despite the best of intentions, providing people with leaflets, brochures, advertisement, posters (and the like) does little to effect social change. But given this has been the default of the environmental movement – and given the fact that information can improve knowledge and understanding – what are the alternatives?  What should we do, as environmental communicators and educators, to foster sustainable behaviour in ways that reach beyond the written word and snappy image?

Over the last several years an interesting approach known as community-based social marketing has emerged as a serious contender in the creation of effective social change programs. Community-based social marketing, as outlined by McKenzie-Mohr & Smith (1999) in their book Fostering Sustainable Behaviour, focuses on removing barriers to an activity while simultaneously enhancing the benefits of a sustainable action. To be effective, these types of programs must be carried out at the community level. As such, they require a deeper level of direct contact with people. In short, community-based social marketing puts people in the picture.

Amongst other things, commitment techniques have proven to be effective in the promotion of diverse human behaviours that support action for a healthy and prosperous future. As a tool for social change, commitments can take many forms.  McKenzie-Mohr & Smith suggest a number of guidelines for embedding commitment within a public campaign or program for community-based social change:

  • Emphasise commitments that are written rather than verbal
  • Ask for commitments that can be made public
  • Seek out commitments from target groups (eg. work groups, community groups, or groups to which people are active members)
  • Actively involve each individual in the process of understanding and making the commitment
  • Consider cost-effective ways to obtain commitments (this might enable you to achieve more commitments over the long-term)
  • Use existing points of contact to obtain commitments (eg. through email lists, websites, social media etc)
  • Help people to view themselves as environmentally concerned by acknowledging their commitment
  • Avoid coercion so commitments are offered voluntarily (duress doesn’t work in the long-term)
  • Combine expressions of commitment with other behaviour change techniques (eg. pledges, donations, community-based activities, workshops, and the like).

According to McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, commitment strategies have proved effective across the globe, particularly in relation to energy and water efficiency programs and waste reduction campaigns. What’s important to remember, however, is that (irrespective of the environmental objective of your social change program), when commitment is used in combination with strategies that inform, inspire and motivate people to participate in new ways of seeing and being in the world, there’s a much greater likelihood that your social change program will achieve at least some – if not all – of its goals.

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