How to Motivate People Toward Sustainability


Moving sustainability forward in companies isn’t just about technological innovation. Different groups of people – employees, consumers, communities – can make or break a company’s sustainability efforts. How can managers get these groups to work for, not against, the cause? (Hint: It doesn’t involve images of drowning polar bears.)

Key groups to consider

  • Employees are critical to advancing sustainability in any business. They’re needed to implement company-wide initiatives and they can also contribute their own ideas based on their specific areas of expertise. Employees at all levels have the potential to contribute.
  • Customers can support the company’s sustainability agenda by purchasing green products and promoting the company’s brand.
  • Communities are also important influences on sustainability success. For companies with a significant local footprint, like those engaged in manufacturing or resource extraction, community perception is critical. Maintaining the social license to operate within the community can reduce friction and costs and can even lead to collaborations on projects with local stakeholders.

How can managers positively influence these different groups? Psychology researchers have studied what motivates people, and the field of “environmental psychology” looks specifically at what motivates actions related to the environment. Some key findings can be useful to managers trying to get the best from the people with whom they interact.

Seven motivation strategies are:

  • Leverage the leaders. As they’re deciding how to act, people look to both leaders and peers. If others they respect are doing or endorsing behaviors, people are likely to follow them. Leaders might be nearby – for example, organizational leaders – or they may be more distant, public figures. Group activities can be a way to make people feel that peers are also engaged.
  • Make it easy. People can have wonderful intentions, but if the practical support isn’t there, the action often won’t happen. If a recycling bin is close by, people are more likely to use it. If a product’s not readily available, people may not seek it out.
  • Make it enjoyable. Positive messages, social norms, and group activities can make sustainability related behaviors seem more fun. If people see such actions as a nuisance, they are less likely to do them. As a light-hearted example, community meetings – and meetings generally – go better with cupcakes.
  • Allow participation. People want to be involved in issues that concern them. Participation can just mean getting information, but people often want the opportunity to contribute ideas as well. Participation leads to positive attitudes – and often great new ideas.
  • Consider whether to reward behaviour. Rewards are not necessarily a go-to strategy for motivating people. Rewards are effective while they continue – but once they stop, the behavior usually drops off. Rewards are “extrinsic motivation,” motivation from outside the person. Motivation that people develop internally, rooted in their beliefs, is more long-lasting.

Takeaways for motivating employees, customers and communities

These strategies are a tool-kit for managers as they engage employees, customers, and communities around sustainability. And the good news is, these approaches generally don’t just apply to sustainability – they’re good practices in any interaction. Here are some key takeaways for each group:

  • Employees. Key strategies: Equip people with knowledge; leverage the leaders. Reframe the sustainability message to employees. Give people enough guidance that actions don’t seem mysterious, but leave them some room to innovate and participate as well. Actions can be a group effort, to draw on social norms and make a sustainability initiative more fun – Green Teams follow this approach.
  • Customers. Key strategies: Nudge, don’t shove; make it enjoyable; leverage the leaders. Incremental changes in a product can be best received, because people have trouble shifting to something radically new. Make the changes easy, and link new features to what’s already familiar. The general rules of advertising still apply: green products can be sold as enjoyable and as popular. Green cleaning products are an example of something consumers can easily adopt, as the products are packaged and used in familiar ways.
  • Communities. Key strategies: Allow participation; equip people with knowledge; leverage the leaders. Allow participation; equip people with knowledge; leverage the leaders. Participation is critical if communities will be affected by company actions. Leading companies get involved with communities early on – even when a project is just in planning stages. Communities want the opportunity to tell companies what’s important to them, and to have an understanding of the process. As a result of positive engagement, communities will see companies more positively – and may even contribute valuable ideas. Sharing knowledge with communities can be complicated but a focus on communicating with the right community members (i.e. leaders who are respected by the community as a whole) and persistence can help create positive outcomes.

Find out more

The NBS Knowledge Centre provides more insights, including Systematic Reviews, in the areas of employees and culture, consumers and communities. Also look for the NBS systematic review on Social Change to be released late 2012.


    we need such strategies  to facilitate sustainability
    in Iraq
    best regards

  • Tim Cotter

    Good stuff. Research also shows that having a clearly articulated organizational commitment to sustainability is a critical determinant in the engagement of the staff
    Tim Cotter @ Awake