Empty truck moving in Sentabai Village in West Kalimantan at the end of the day. CIFOR/Icaro Cooke Vieira

Triggering behavior change to inspire sustainable land use

Digital summit with Rare

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) – Most – if not all – of the environment and development challenges of today come down in some way to human behavior, according to Kevin Green from conservation and behavior change organization Rare, speaking at a Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) digital summit on Tuesday.

“It’s hard to think of any that don’t require people to behave differently in order to solve them,” Green said, adding that to instigate the urgent changes required to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity, people and their motivations must be understood.

During the summit, entitled the “Importance of Behavior Change for Land Use Change,” experts from academia, government and civil society shared insights on initiatives that could help unblock efforts to forge environmental change to protect ecosystems and human livelihoods.

The science is there, but most large-scale attempts to shift human behavior around environmental issues to date – such as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) and restoration agendas – use only basic tools to influence behavior, such as financial incentives and legal restrictions.

“And that’s really problematic,” said Fiona Lambe, with the Stockholm Environment Institute‘s Initiative on Behavior and Choice. “In terms of the sort of progress we need to be making to meet the (U.N.) Sustainable Development Goals, if development interventions aren’t keeping up with the behavioral science and what we know about how people work.”


Environment and development interventions to date have in large part worked on the premise that humans are largely rational and self-interested decision-makers.

“Most often we deploy strategies to change behavior that kind of assume people are motivated in very specific ways, so we pass a regulation and expect people to follow it, or we offer a financial incentive and hope they react to it, or we even sometimes just give people facts and hope that translates to change,” said Green. “But those [strategies] don’t always work.”

That’s because people aren’t simply rational, said Daniel Vennard, director of the Better Buying Lab at World Resources Institute. We make a lot of our decisions very quickly and almost subconsciously, based on things like emotions, social cues, timing and context. So while there’s a place for educating and informing people, it shouldn’t be the only thing we do, he said.

Benjamin Kumpf, who leads the Innovation Facility of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), agreed. “In our own lives, there are plenty of moments when we know what we “should” do, but we still don’t act accordingly,” he said

“So if there’s an information gap, then let’s invest in building awareness, but if people know the statistics and the benefits of a certain behavior already, then let’s spend that time facilitating action,” he said.


A key element in influencing people’s decision-making processes is crafting a positive, memorable story or narrative about the behavior one is trying to encourage, according to Vennard.

He and his colleagues found that if they called a dish vegetarian, half the number of people would choose it than would otherwise, and if they called it healthy, many people perceived it as less tasty or less filling.

“It’s because they have these associations with a narrative of healthy or vegetarian food – that it’s not for them, or that it’s not going to be delicious,” he said.

That’s important, because often “the narrative of associations of the change that we want people to move towards isn’t very desirable. It’s the wrong story. So if we can invent a new narrative, we can actually engage a much broader range of people,” Vennard explained.

Accordingly, his lab has begun marketing plant-based food using new language that makes it sound appealing, indulgent, and exciting. “In doing so we’re influencing sales between about 20 to 70 percent of plant-based food in the field,” he said.

Positive messages are also important, said Estefanía Baldeón Clavijo, of CanopyBridge, a global network that connects buyers and suppliers of sustainable products.

“So many of the campaigns talking about environmental issues are so negative, dark and sad,” she said. Food is a great way to engage people, she explains, because most people enjoy eating, and we can choose to make more sustainable everyday choices by buying different products and knowing where they come from.

Of course, realities are complex, and no one intervention will be a silver bullet. Lambe shared some of her experience of exploring small-scale technology adoption to support sustainable development in low-income settings.

“We realized that behavioral insights are only going to be useful for us in our work if we can find a way to pinpoint exactly where in a change process they can be usefully applied,” she said, adding that it is important to map the context of people’s everyday decision-making very thoroughly before intervening.


How might people feel about having their behavior influenced through behavior-change projects? Could it be seen as manipulative?

“Well, it’s already happening everywhere we go,” said Vennard. We’re always being influenced – consciously and unconsciously – to make particular choices, he said.

“Behavior change, when done well, should be in service of what people want; it shouldn’t be against them.”

Lambe added: “The whole idea is that we try to understand the needs and motivations and context and lifestyles of the people we’re working with, and the change on the table should bring with it a whole swathe of other benefits.”

“So we would rarely zoom in and talk about one particular tweak or thing we want people to do differently, but rather try to co-create, together with our stakeholders on the ground, a future that everybody wants equally,” she said.

“I think that’s really powerful, and it takes away that notion of trying to ‘slip behavior change in’.”


Where to from here? The speakers were unanimous – if you’re working in conservation, development or related fields, go ahead and try out integrating behavioral insights into your work.

“Give it a go,” Vennard said. “Be a pioneer with the rest of us, and hopefully when we do this again in five years we’ll have lots of really interesting ideas and projects to pull on.”

“We’re all human beings,” Lambe said. “That’s one of the elements of the work that I like the most – that even though I’m working in a context that’s far removed from my daily life, I recognize so many of the issues from my own behavior. So that makes it really easy to build the sort of empathy we need with people to start co-creating solutions together.”



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