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In recent years, the “green,” or, environmental movement has been gaining in notoriety. Suddenly, an enormous market has emerged for green products, from environmentally friendly cleaning products to low impact vacations in eco-friendly destinations. Yet in spite of great publicity and interest, a so-called “green revolution” has not taken hold. However, as those with psychology degrees already very well know, behavioral psychology can help explain why, in spite of the existence of great amounts information on going green, individuals and corporations fail to adopt environmentally sustainable practices.

Everyday the population of the globe grows, people live longer and individuals enjoy a better standard of living. These three trends result in the greater consumption of material goods than ever before (coupled with a concurrent increase in industrial activity), increasing waste and pollution worldwide. Concern over the increase of pollution led to the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States in the 1960s. However, since the inception of this movement, environmentalism has been hardened political issue. Thus “green” has become a loaded term, causing the debate over the necessity of changing business and personal practices to become a partisan issue.

At the business level, the debate tends to focus on the question of whether environmentalism is good for industry or if it harms profitability. There is a perception that governmental and environmental regulations cut into a company’s profit. Unfortunately, this zero-sum understanding of the relationship between economics and the environment creates a strong resistance toward developing environmentally sustainable business strategies. However, creative solutions that preserve profitability while protecting the environment exist; the challenge is to shift the argument away from the environment vs. economic scenario into a debate over which win-win solutions are best.

A second obstruction to the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices is the hesitancy to make short-term sacrifices in favor of long-term benefits. This is underscored by the fact that an individual’s or business’ practices become established over time and difficult to change. Something as simple as beginning a home or business recycling program, weatherproofing a home to reduce wasted energy or modifying a business supply chain can present psychological challenges that induce procrastination and avoidance. As counterintuitive as the rejection of the long-term benefits in favor of immediate rewards may seem, it is a fundamental human trait that acts as a barrier to sustainable practices.

The third and final main barrier to going green occurs mainly at the individual level. Despite increased publicity of urgent environmental issues such as climate change, pesticide contamination of food and water and air pollution, individuals seem unwilling to act. This is because the human psyche can only accommodate a limited number of concerns at any given time. Termed the “finite pool of worry,” this theory explains the lukewarm response to environmental concerns at the same time that it provides a solution. Environmentalism on its own, despite its importance, occupies a low position on most individual’s priority lists. Concerns about the economy, the job market, personal health and quality of life tend to dominate a person’s day-to-day worries.

Therefore in order to increase its visibility, the issue of environmentalism must be reframed to fit within a person’s existing concerns. For example, people concerned about the job market, might be interested in the potential employment opportunities created by adopting renewable energy resources. When people can see how environmentally sustainable practices can benefit them personally in the short term, they are much more likely to act.

Clearly, behavioral psychology can help provide insight as to why, in spite of the urgency behind the sustainability movement, corporate and individual actions so often fail to meet expectations. By using behavioral psychology to identify the barriers to the adoption of new mindsets and behaviors, we can simultaneously highlight challenges and suggest strategies to overcome them. Resolving the resistance to environmentalism requires a multi-faceted and creative approach, but it is possible to intelligently foster a sustainable lifestyle from the bottom up.

This guest post was written by Allison Gamble.

It was a true pleasure to get a phone call from Susan Murray, parent and owner of Waste Not Solutions of Little Silver, NJ. She described a community that wanted to take a proactive step and invest some of its precious Environmental Commission dollars in the community’s children and schools.

Led by Rosemary Brewer, the Little Silver Environmental Commission graciously donated 1000 custom, stainless steel water bottles to the students and staff at Point Road and Markham Place schools in New Jersey. The commission’s goal was to help students reduce the number of disposable plastic water bottles they use and to make a positive impact on the environment.

The school created additional enthusiasm for the program by holding a logo design contest for the students. The winner was rewarded with their logo on the schools’ bottles. The result is a fantastic graphic. Bravo Little Silver!

Back2Tap reusable steel bottles

Back2Tap reusable steel bottles

Back2Tap reusable stainless steel bottles

Back2Tap reusable stainless steel bottles

Last Saturday I participated in a forum called “Inventing the Future – Rebuilding Communities from the Inside Out” organized by We Are BOOST (Building Open Opportunity Structures Together) in Trenton, NJ.   As I navigated my way to the event using the GPS system in my new Toyota Camry hybrid, I found a neighborhood “in transition” – some of the old houses and buildings were boarded up, but many were cared for and charming.  There was a feeling of hope here. 

Once inside Planet Havana, the bar/nightclub hosting the all day event, I found the people who embodied that hope.  Many of them had known each other for decades.  All of them were committed to collaborating to find new solutions to old problems in their under-served Trenton neighborhood.   In addition to hope, there was passion – the meeting began with local children aged 5 through 17 years reading their prize-winning poems on peace.    Then each forum participant shared what they were doing and fielded questions. 

After listening to the stories, I have to admit that the challenges faced in this community and others like it were not at all familiar to me – prolonged unemployment, crime, violence, prejudice, poor self-image, school water with high lead levels, industrial contamination of residential neighborhoods, and the difficulties of re-entering society after prison.  All mind-boggling problems, and yet, my message about the wastefulness of bottled water and the importance of drinking tap water from reusable bottles was recieved with great interest and enthusiasm. 

Maybe it was because getting Back2Tap is a simple concrete step that anyone can take toward a more sustainable lifestyle.  Maybe it was because people who have been exposed to environmental contamination have a greater appreciation for the limitations of our planet and its vulnerability.  Maybe it was because having less discretionary income motivates people to be less wasteful.  Maybe it was because there is a mindfulness here that is far too uncommon.  Maybe it was because of their unflagging hope for better days ahead.

At the end of the forum, over half of the crowd came up to take a brochure and express an interest in running a Back2Tap fundraising campaign with their particular organization or group.   As I left, two of my beautiful new-found sisters Amini and Sa Mut gave me warm hugs that I won’t soon forget.   As soon as I got back into my car and started for home, I discovered that Planet Havana is less than two blocks from a penitentiary surrounded by towering stone walls topped with huge bales of barbed wire that must serve as a constant reminder of how wrong things can go.

My new hope is that Back2Tap will be able to help these dynamic community organizers raise money, save money, and spread sustainability in their under-served community.

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