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Executive Report: Decision-Making for Sustainability

This report is designed to help business leaders, managers, and policy-makers improve their decision-making process to reach more sustainable outcomes.

Which decision-making strategies can managers use to get the most sustainable outcome?

Managers make many decisions daily, ranging from whether to turn off lights to what benefits to give employees. How can they choose among options to get to the most sustainable outcome?

This guide helps you:

  1. Understand how sustainability decisions are – and aren’t – like other decisions.

  2. Identify the decisions that are most susceptible to biases.

  3. Translate decisions into actions.

  4. Create more transparent processes for making complex decisions.

This report is based on a systematic review conducted by Joseph Arvai, Victoria Campbell-Arvai and Piers Steel. The research team reviewed more than 60 years of research on decision-making, synthesizing data from 207 studies.

Accept that decision-making isn’t simple.

Economic models assume people have access to all information, can process it all, and are not victim to errors and biases. This simply isn’t reality. People use biases to “help” make decisions quickly and easily. While these biases simplify complexity and gain efficiency, they do not always result in the best long-term solution to a particular question or problem.

When faced with the decision, individuals must consider a range of more and less sustainable options. But built-in biases can push individuals toward choices that are less sustainable. Interventions can help individuals overcome or use biases to get to sustainable outcomes.

Figure 1. Getting to a Sustainable Outcome

Manage bias and reduce errors when making sustainability decisions.

Four categories of biases and errors that are particularly relevant to sustainability decisions are described in Table 1. These may cause decision-makers to consistently and predictably land on less-sustainable outcomes. Forewarned is forearmed: knowing about these biases lets us better manage them in ourselves and others.

Table 1. Biases and Errors in Decision-Making for Sustainability


Treat routine and complex decisions differently.

There are two basic types of decisions: Routine and complex.

Routine decisions. Individuals face numerous routine decisions. These decisions can happen at home or work. They tend to be frequent, quick and do not involve a lot of conscious thought. For example: recycling a coffee cup or turning on a light. We can improve our routine decisions (and those of our employees, friends or families) by being aware of and working with our built-in biases.

Complex decisions. Individuals or groups (companies, committees) can face complex decisions. These decisions tend to be infrequent, require the synthesis of technical and other information, and involve a great deal riding on arriving at the “right” decision. For example: deciding where to site a new facility or investing in climate adaptation initiatives. Decision support techniques break these decisions down into manageable steps and aim to overcome built-in biases and errors.

Table 2. Overview of Interventions for Routine and Complex Decisions.

Improve the quality of your own decision-making processes.

“How people think and feel about options is highly dependent upon how they are presented to them,” says author Joe Arvai. But “the fact that decisions are [influenced that way] is what makes it possible to improve both the quality of the decision making processes and, in some instances, the quality of the outcomes.”[1]

Use the strategies in this guide to build better, more sustainable decisions.

Who can use this report?

This research is most relevant for:

  • Sustainability managers looking to encourage better choices by their employees or customers (e.g. reducing energy usage, recycling waste).

  • Executives seeking ways to create more transparent, inclusive processes for making major decisions (e.g. where to site a new facility, reclaiming land).

  • Policy-makers in the public or private sector looking to enable sustainable choices.

[1] Arvai, J. April 3, 2012. Thinking fast and thinking slow: how our minds make us behave sustainably. The Guardian


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