Four young people


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How many people do you need to save the planet?

We are at a tipping point for sustainability, as businesses, policymakers and consumers enter rebuilding mode after the pandemic. A change towards a more sustainable new norm simply must happen – and here’s what we know about just how that change will happen according to research.

1. There’s a magic number of people you need for making a change

We all want to see a change towards a more sustainable world. The good news is, we need a surprisingly small number of trailblazers to make it happen.

According to research by Professor of Public Policy Erica Chenoweth at Harvard, around 3.5 percent of a population taking part in non-violent civil disobedience, such as peaceful protests, is enough to bring about societal change. Chenoweth concluded the number by looking at hundreds of campaigns from all over the world over the last century.Chenoweth also found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent ones. Her research has reportedly inspired many activist groups, such as the Fridays for Future movement known for its global school strikes for the climate.​ What businesses can do: Collaborate with trailblazing partners and don’t compromise on your sustainability strategy – even in the face of challenges.

2. A very particular kind of storytelling is best for advancing sustainability

What motivates humans to support sustainability? COVID-19 has offered researchers a unique perspective on the issue:In July 2020, researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) published a study that showed that people were more likely to support wildlife conservation if they were told that there was a direct link between wildlife losing their natural habitat due to human influence and the spread of COVID-19.

One of the researchers involved in this study is Ganga Shreedhar, Assistant Professor in Behavioural Sciences at LSE. She presented research subjects with a few different stories about the cause of COVID-19. “We found that only when you really mentioned the human cause did people support conservation policies,” Shreedhar says.

That wasn’t a surprise. Climate change is very complex, and there can be a huge psychological distance between what’s happening elsewhere and the ultimate effect.For example, owners of electric vehicles don’t always think about where the electricity they use to charge their car is coming from. It’s not always as green as they might think, and especially in regions where electricity is sourced from coal, electric vehicles are not necessarily better than conventional vehicles.​ What businesses can do: Highlight clear connections between human behavior, climate change and the effect this ultimately has on people’s lives.

3. Normalizing sustainable options is key to mass change

We all know the old diet tip: if you want to resist unhealthy snacks, keep them out of your house. The same logic goes for encouraging ourselves to be sustainable: we need to normalize environmentally friendly options.

To normalize sustainability, make it the default setting

In addition to widening the supply of sustainable solutions, one way to normalize sustainability is to make sustainability “the default setting”.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people are much more likely to turn off the light when they leave a public bathroom if the light was already off when they came in. “People take a lot of information from what their neighbors and the people around them do. Social norms are very powerful,” says Shreedhar. “If you believe that the norm is changing, people tend to want to switch to the dynamic norm, because they think that's where most people are going to go.”

And that’s also true on a societal level: By communicating about their climate actions, businesses can set an example to policymakers, customers and employees and actively shape where we’re headed.​ What businesses can do: Don’t wait around for new sustainability demands to determine your strategy but create a strategy that inspires sustainable demand instead.

4. Historical inflection points work wonders for advancing sustainability

Change isn’t always gradual. At historical inflection points, people tend to suddenly change their habits all at once.For example, during the Second World War, several countries in Europe and North America introduced early recycling programs to compensate for dwindling resources from international trade.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic forced people in cities to stay inside, resulting in historically low levels of urban air pollution. There is a unique window of opportunity now open for cities to make permanent changes that lower air pollution. That could be done, for example, by giving more room to light traffic like London plans to do, or by fuelling city fleets with renewable diesel refined from the city’s own waste, like the city of Oakland does in California.​ What businesses can do: Use the unique opportunity that abnormal conditions give to implement long-term sustainable solutions.

5. We need to acknowledge the emotional aspect of a lifestyle change

Finally, it can be difficult to convince ourselves to make sustainable choices if this means that we have to change a significant part of our lifestyle.

Giving up a car is challenging if you feel a strong psychological connection to owning one

That’s the case with car culture. Switching from using a car daily to another means of transport – such as public transport or car-sharing – is not only a big lifestyle change, but it can be extra challenging for people who feel a strong psychological connection to the value of owning their own car.

In fact, a study from The Netherlands showed that people with a high level of this sort of “psychological ownership” were less influenced by the usual factors like price and convenience that help people decide whether to switch to a car-sharing service.Similarly, for professional drivers, the hassle of navigating a not-quite-there-yet charging infrastructure with an electric vehicle may just feel too uncertain, and not worth the investment.

When drivers are attached to the convenience that their vehicle gives them, then the best solution might be to make a shift that doesn’t require any sacrifices or radical lifestyle changes. For professional fleets, that could mean, for example, simply switching from traditional diesel to renewable diesel, which results in up to 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil-based options and requires no modifications to the vehicle.

The emotional link between identity and vehicles can affect entire cities

But the emotional link between identity and vehicles can even affect entire cities or regions.

A recent study found that discussions about new transportation methods were particularly challenging in areas of Germany that relied on car manufacturing. Here, they weren’t just asking people to consider how their transportation affected the environment, but people had to face the fact that their own established local industry was part of the problem, and that made the conversation even more challenging. The researchers recommended a “culturally sensitive approach”. That’s always good advice.​ What businesses can do: Understand how your customers and employees feel about sustainability, and work with partners who understand the characteristics of specific markets.

Finding the first 3.5 percent

It might seem a daunting task, but it is possible to achieve major changes through many individual actions. People see how others are acting, learn from examples, respond to incentives and gradually, they change their habits. As Clay Shirky wrote in his book Here Comes Everybody, “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviours.”We just need enough trailblazers to join those first 3.5 percent.

Credits: Dr. Eva Amsen, a science writer and communicator whose work has appeared on Forbes, Nautilus and The Scientist. Twitter