Opportunities to use behavioral insights to promote sustainable consumption

Consuming Sustainably

Today humans consume more resources annually than our planet produces in nine months. Our rate of consumption continues to grow in both developed and developing economies, putting the planet—and those who live here—at risk. The number of middle-class consumers alone will rise by 2-3 billion in the next 30 years. To avoid disaster, we must develop strategies that decouple economic growth and human well-being from such an unsustainable use of our limited natural resources.

The opportunities to shift consumer behavior are immense. Each day, across the world, individuals make countless small choices and take small actions that have momentous impacts on our planet’s natural resources as a whole. Policies that focus on shifting these everyday behaviors toward more sustainable outcomes are crucial to achieving more sustainable consumption patterns. 

To that end, we worked with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to shed light on promising opportunities to use insights from behavioral science to promote sustainable consumption in economies across the globe. Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably provides evidence-based insights from behavioral science and calls on policymakers and practitioners to incorporate the proven behavioral approach into their processes and toolkits today. 

Insights from behavioral science can increase the effectiveness of these policy solutions and other tools. In the paper, we detail five key psychological barriers to sustainable consumption that effective solutions must address. We also identify concrete examples of how behavioral science has been successfully coupled with policy to cost-effectively achieve sustainable consumption. We examine key consumption areas, including: 

  • energy
  • water
  • transportation and mobility
  • food and diet
  • waste and disposal

Beyond the work covered in this paper, there are many more opportunities to apply behavioral approaches to shift consumption patterns. For example, few behavioral applications have thus far focused on managing the unsustainable consumption of low-quality, disposable consumer goods. Even more critically, to date behavioral insights have disproportionately focused on developed countries, while there are many opportunities to apply behavioral insights in developing countries, particularly as these populations join the growing middle class in coming years. 

Rigorously designing and testing behavioral solutions in these spaces is crucial. Achieving sustainable consumption will require great global effort—it is critical that we employ all of the tools at our disposal. By using the deep understanding of decision-making offered by behavioral science, policymakers can design more effective policies to shift consumption patterns and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read the full paper: Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably.

Interested in learning more about this work applying behavioral science to a crucial social problem? Reach out to us: info@ideas42.org or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.