Make It Personal: How to Get People to Care About Sustainability


New polls frequently announce that a significant proportion of the population is concerned about an issue or willing to sacrifice for a cause – from environmental sustainability to third world debt. The polls create the sense of a public mandate for action on these issues. However, standard polls don’t accurately measure people’s true beliefs.

Polls fail for two reasons:

  • First, many issues are subject to what’s called social response bias. Vague questions about an issue will generally elicit responses that reflect what the respondent believes society or the surveying organization sees positively.
  • Second, there is no cost to responding to a poll. Answering "I am concerned" forces no real cognitive choice on the individual. There is no consequence associated with the opinion.

Case in point: surveys always indicated that Australians were very concerned about the environment. But after the government proposed a carbon tax, support for this environmental issue quickly declined. Suddenly, people realized that their support had consequences.

Getting at people’s true beliefs

My colleagues and I developed a polling methodology that makes consequences real and gets at people’s true beliefs. Our approach assesses the relative value that people place on different issues, forcing individuals to make realistic tradeoffs. In other words, rather than being asked their opinion of an issue generally, individuals have to choose among issues in a way that reveals what truly matters when something must be taken off the table.

We have polled almost 10,000 people in Australia, Germany, the UK, and the United States. We’ve found basically identical results across countries. Our findings for Australia are below.

This graph outlines the relative issue salience, or importance, for Australians of 16 general categories of social, economic and political issues (underlying these categories are 113 individual issues). The graph is read as indicating the likelihood (from 0 percent to 100 percent) that when an item appears it is considered to be salient (the ratio of the numbers indicates the odds that one issue dominates another).

Our findings and what they mean for sustainability...

We find proximity matters: people care about issues close to their daily lives. The issues of high concern to the survey respondents included food and health, crime and public safety, access to services, equality of opportunity, and individual economic well-being. Issues that are more distant were lower priority.

For those of us focused on sustainability, the results are reason for concern. Social and environmental sustainability are among the lower priority issues, especially when they are framed as global rather than local. In addition, people’s concern for environmental sustainability has declined dramatically over the last five years. In 2007, environmental sustainability was 4th out of 16 issues in terms of level of concern. In 2011, it was 8th out of 16 issues.

The trends are the same in the other countries we studied. A minor difference is that Australians and the British are slightly more environmentally concerned than Americans and slightly less environmentally concerned than Germans.

It’s not clear why environmental concern is decreasing in the countries studied, although we do know the change is not related solely to the global financial crisis. Perhaps the high level of concern revealed in 2007 – the first year we studied – was an anomaly. In 2007, Al Gore won the Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his climate change work; the year was a public relations watershed for the environmental movement. The lower results in 2011 may well represent a more realistic view of people's long-term values.

What is clear is that the global environmental movement is facing an uphill battle to keep key sustainability issues on the agenda against issues that seem more relevant to individual members of society.

The lesson for sustainability advocates?

Make environmental issues as relevant and personal as access to medicine or freedom from discrimination. Individuals will prioritize sustainability issues if the issues are critical to everyday life.

Consider climate change: people care about local heat waves more than the fate of polar bears in the Arctic. They care about potential toxins in household products more than international pollution treaties. Companies must understand this – and frame sustainability issues so they hit home.

Advocates should be wary of speaking in grand terms – such as Greenpeace’s recent declaration that it is moving to a “war footing” to protect the world’s oceans. Disappointing though it may be, ordinary people are motivated to act, not by a higher noble cause, but when they feel their basic rights and livelihood, and that of those around them, are affected.

About the Research

Our first report, highlighted above, examines survey results from more than 3,000 people in Australia in 2007 and 2011. The full report is available for download here. The reports on the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom will be available in September 2012.

About the Author

Timothy Devinney is a Professor of Strategy at University of Technology, Sydney. He has held positions at the University of Chicago, Vanderbilt, UCLA and The Australian Graduate School of Management.  He has worked and consulted with many corporations, including Apple Computer and Mobil, as well as governments and non-profits.  He is a fellow of the Academy of International Business, a recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellow. He is Co-editor of The Academy of Management Perspectives and Advances in International Management.

  • mygreenshorts

    I also wonder if there is a short-term and a long-term game here. There is values research that shows that we have extrinsic and intrinsic values in our values set (individual focused – money, appearance etc; as well as caring for others, the environment etc).  But extrinsic and extrinsic values cannot be held simultaneously at the same point in time.  The huge influence of advertising on our societies and our focus on financial reward is actually changing our value sets to become more selfish.  So yes in the short term we may make more progress by focusing on what matters to individuals, but in the long term we are just reinforcing the same, largely selfish, value set.  And that seems like a dead end to me.  Empathy, for example, can be strengthened as well as weakened …

    • Timothy Devinney

      The short-term long-term aspect of this is likely to be important
      with our work most likely revealing the most stable patterns.  What is
      amazing about what we see (including the US, Germany and the UK) is the
      stability.  What it means is that there is a very strong rigidity in
      preferences that needs to be overcome.  This is seen in other work as well.  One can get people to react to initiatives in the short term but making this something that can compete against normal every day things plus long established biases is difficult.  Your statement that we are “just reinforcing the same, largely selfish, value set” is a reaction we have been getting for years on this work but the reality is that you must understand things before you can change them.  Just hoping that people will change is not going to work.  You must have a basis against which to compare real change.

      • mygreenshorts

        Thanks for the comment Timothy. 

        I must say that I’m becoming increasingly confused about what are the best approaches.  When I worked in policy in New Zealand (5 or so years ago now) we regularly used the ‘it’ll save you money, it’s better for your health, and by the way its good for the environment’ approach.  But I’ve recently seen research that has suggested that this is not a very good long term approach – I’m surprised that you said it “is a reaction you have been getting for years”!  But I absolutely agree that we need to understand things and have a basis to compare real change.  Yes, we have been hoping for change for too long. 

        I absolutely agree with your comments about parents of children getting more engaged than non-parents – and so that comes down to understanding the current life situation and preferences of the individuals involved.  Where that leaves mass marketing type messaging, I don’t know – it seems to me that it alienates as many people as it encourages. 

        Also, you say in the article that we should be wary of speaking in grand terms, but I remember reading something that was saying exactly the opposite – that motivating people needed to call on them to be agents of change involved in a collective epic challenge.  It was suggesting that the gaming industry had some lessons it could teach us.

        I understand that your research looked at beliefs. I’m sure you’re more aware than me of the huge number of factors that influence actual behaviour (which is what we are ultimately interested in).  Beliefs are very important but many factors stop us from acting on our beliefs.

        I’d appreciate any further comments and research references!  Thanks!

      • Tiziana Palazzo

        Dear Timothy Devinney do u organize any course to learn your method ? I’m interesting in learning how to “amke it personal in Italy. It’s a challange expecially in the south of Italy..Thanks for your answer

  • Guest DK

    Well of course they are. I though that was old news though. It’s how I’ve been trying to go about it for years, but it’s still hard to get people to get, that how they treat the planet somewhere in the world gives us the crazy changes in whether we’re having. And Denmark haven’t had a bad time at all compared to other countries. Still, I’m all:

    “hey, would you want your kid to get sick from playing at the local playground because it’s build on a piece of land full of chemicals and trash?

    Would you like to get pesticide leftovers in your food because you don’t eat organic? never mind, might just make you sterile or full of cancer.

    Do you prefer eating a lot of cheap pork and have chlorine in your tap water, or would you prefer to eat less meat and still have clean water (DK has clean water…) btw – same goes for organic grown foods. Pee and pesticides ends up in our ground water…

    Do you like to get your basement flooded by the crazy rain we had in recent years? Stops the trains in the city from working too. And it’s so annoying when the high-way is closed off too. Would you mind using your bike more, and tell your friends, so we can stop the climate from bringing more crazy rain?”

    I’d LOVE to hear how all of you out there are making this tangible. I need better explanations and arguments myself. Thanks for posting the article :)

    • Timothy Devinney

      This is an interesting way to do it and in fact in other experiments we show that if you can change the context you can dramatically influence actions, which then work on preferences.  This appears odd but the reality seems to be that if you want people to change, don’t badger them about their “bad” preferences (what I call the Al Gore Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Maxima Mea Culpa Method) but change the context in which behavior occurs and let individuals “equilibriate” (basically people want their preferences and behaviors to be aligned and it is easier to change preferences than behavior).  We did this by running experiments where we had activities linked to school contests and then looked at the behavior of the parents and family.  What we found was that having contests in schools changed behavior of parents and families.  It changed the focus from “environment” to “my children’s schooling” and that mattered a lot.  You need to show materiality to that specific individual and that is really want seems to influence behavior and change.

  • Karen Clarke-Whistler

    Interesting. I wonder if your work gets a bit further ‘under the covers’ and asks what motivates people to be concerned. Yes it has to be relevant to them directly – but I’ve seen some interstngi research around social values and environment.

    • Timothy Devinney

      Thanks for that.  We are working on this in a number of ways.  One is that we have done quite a lot with consumers (see and …. However, with this work we are doing exensive interviews and other batteries of studies including economic and behavioral experiments.  The report is just the beginning to get a benchmark.  We are also working with MSF, Greenpeace, WWF and Amnesty International.

  • Kathryn Cooper

    Great Article – although I worry that we continue to try to “silo” issues.  Environmental sustainability today is every bit as much a part of food safety, food security, human security, economic development, jobs etc.  All things that people would see as local and personal.  Sustainability is a movement toward seeing the world and everything in it as part of a system.  We would do well to teach people about the interrelated nature of all things. 

    • Timothy Devinney

      Thanks … you can look at the report and in the appendix is a listing of all the scores on the individual issues.  So while the article (which is limited to 800 words) only talks about the categories you can go into the 113 sub-issues and literally build your own categories.  So what we have is the ability to go beyond the simple aggregates (which is there since we have to say something!).  So look at the report @ (under social values reports).  The German and UK reports will be up in September with the US about the same time. 

      • Ann Sterckx

        It is a very interesting research and I am so concerned too by these results. @Kathryn, I agree strongly about what you say (look to my website, but it is so hard to get people to that insight ….

        With regard to the research: I find some confirmation, that there can be found power in working very locally, and that all local ecological oriented initiatives should be supported by the city, the environment, by the government, by schools, etc … and as such create a ripple effect and leverage for transformation, and give confidence to people that change can be positive. I think giving an alternative to people can be one of the manners to open the mind and to “awaken” them. As an example are the Transition Towns, but it can also be a group of people who wants to make things more sustainable in their city, and as such find other groups, etc …. Often environmental movements tell people what is not good (and people don’t like that), but forget to show examples how it can work and enrich life…

        I am HR manager and I try also to find out how to influence people to change their behaviour, in order to become a sustainable company, and it’s hard, very hard … and as such I am not surprised by the results of the research (I live in Belgium). Finally it starts with yourself, developing an ecoself, walk the talk, giving attention to and rewarding small initiatives, show it as an example to other employees, … it’s moving but slowly … and true, government could do so much more, but I have the feeling it is seen as important, but not as an urgent priority.

        Maybe we need a very very hard worldcrisis to wake up people, but I will not wait for that, I will continue to sow as a concerned cultural creative …

        Anyway, great research! I will continue to follow it! Ann Sterckx.