Fostering Sustainability through Behaviour Change, One Cup at a Time

In his photographic work, “Running the Numbers,” artist Chris Jordan, examines contemporary American culture using statistics. This small piece of his 2008 work entitled, “Paper Cups” represents the 410,000 disposable hot drink cups Americans use every day. Click the picture to view the full image.

The day I realized I had a problem was the day I found myself elbow-deep in my recycling bin, trying to compact a mountain of disposable coffee cups in order to fit one more…just one more…in the box. At the time, I had gotten into the habit of taking a leisurely walk before work, and picking up a coffee along the way; enjoying its comforting aroma as I made my mental to-do list before reaching my desk. The visual reminder – a mountain of cups left to waste – was overwhelming me with guilt.

Why was I, a relatively “conscious” consumer (and a professional helping to communicate sustainability initiatives), behaving in such a blatantly unsustainable manner? Clearly, something had to give.

One of the most challenging questions those in the field of sustainability ask is this: How do you foster individual behaviour change that will result in community sustainability? An answer to this question comes to us through community-based social marketing (CBSM), a communications tool kit that emphasizes public engagement and the removal of barriers to sustainable actions and behaviours in order to create more sustainable communities.

In order to develop a CBSM campaign, practitioners must:

  1. Identify barriers to change
  2. Develop a piloting program to overcome these barriers
  3. Implement the tested program
  4. Measure the results

As the first step in implementing a CBSM program involves identifying barriers to change, I began to look at the barriers to my own behaviour change. What was stopping me from
reducing my coffee-related waste?

Here were my barriers:

  • I didn’t own a travel mug.
  • I didn’t have a coffee maker at home, or work, to make my own coffee.
  • I wasn’t considering the implications of my actions at 7 a.m. I just wanted coffee.

As I began to evaluate my behaviour, I was able to create a plan that would help me to overcome these (perceived) barriers. I borrowed a travel mug from my roommate. I bought a coffee maker for my apartment so that I could bring my own coffee to work. This step would also save me money in the long run. Then I implemented my plan. After a few short weeks I’m happy to say that I regularly arrive at work with travel mug in tow, drinking my home brew. My recycling bin no longer shames me, and I have saved myself some money.

This example of sustainable behaviour change is admittedly (very) small. But the problem is that one person’s actions really do make a difference.

Did you know that Americans purchase over 400 million cups of coffee every day?

400 million.

Every day.

That’s a number few of us can comprehend, but it illustrates a point. One person’s choices, plus another’s person’s choices, plus 398 million other people’s choices, equals a collective action that impacts the planet.

Disposable coffee cups are just one example of how our individual behaviour amounts to environmental strain. This is why sustainability consultants, environmentalists, designers, psychologists and communications experts are working together to find ways to encourage individuals to commit to behaviour changes that will impact their community and the environment in positive ways.

Community based social marketing says there are four keys to fostering sustainable behaviour change:

  1. Prompts – frequent reminders of the action or change that must be taken
  2. Commitments – written or spoken pledges to change
  3. Norms – community norms that reinforce the fact that the change is “the right thing to do”
  4. Vivid communications tools

These tools work together to support sustainable behaviour changes such as waste reduction, recycling and energy conservation.

Here are a few of my own suggestions for communicating your CBSM campaign:

Make change personal

Ensure that your messaging relates to the audience as individuals. Why should they care? How will changes affect their family and community? Here’s a great example of how social norms were used as a tool to decrease household energy consumption.

Make change fun

People often find negative messages overwhelming or punitive, leading to decreased motivation to change. Balance your “reality check” messages with those that incorporate innovative ways that families can enjoy the change process. The Fun Theory was a unique contest sponsored by Volkswagen that challenged individuals to come up with fun ideas that would lead to positive behaviour change. It’s a year old, but the videos are worth a

Make people’s lives better

Clearly illustrate the benefits of change. People often associate “green” initiatives with increased costs, but this isn’t usually the case. Despite some upfront investment (i.e. installing new energy efficient windows), the long term savings (financial and environmental) will benefit everyone.

Make change easy

Provide your audience with resources that educate and empower them. Ask yourself every question about the change possible. As you can see from my coffee example, no barrier to change is too small. The answers should be simple too – or at least that’s how they should appear. Break down complex processes into manageable steps. For example, if you want people to understand a new waste reduction initiative in your community, make sure they have all of the information available as to why and how they can carry it out. Bring resources to them – physically or online. Don’t hide solutions.

Incorporate advocacy

As individuals, we have the capacity to make positive changes to create more sustainable communities. However, the political will to support these initiatives is vital to their success. Without the cooperation of government and business, certain issues (e.g. closing
coal fired power plants in Ontario
) would be incredibly difficult.  Advocacy is a tool that engages individuals to commit to personal change, while encouraging policy makers to incorporate long term solutions into municipal, provincial and federal legislation.

How else could we as communicators, planners and consultants, encourage individuals to live more sustainably?

For more information on CBSM, visit

Bryna Jones is the Director of Communications at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, and a member of the International Association of Business Communicators. Bryna’s project experience includes communications and marketing planning, advocacy campaign development, social media strategy, government relations, and project management. She also has considerable experience in copy writing and public speaking.


About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit
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