Motivation and skills are not enough to fundamentally change behavior.
To nurture and maintain long-lasting change in behavior, we need to alter our perception of how we see the world.
How can we shift norms and values that will lead to more sustainable purchasing practices?

Resisting the green gold

February 22, 2022

Last year I made a promise to myself: I will stop eating fish and meat and become a vegetarian. Knowing that meat and dairy uses 83% of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, I was certain I was minimizing my ecological impact on the planet with my diet; I stopped eating the most polluting and damaging products on the list. Or so I thought.

The problem with being conscious about the environment is that the more you know, the less you can justify certain choices that are in conflict with what you know. Most confronting was the fact that other people started to hold me accountable for my choices. “You don’t eat meat and fish, but you do eat cheese?”—cheese is in the top five of GHG emission. “You’re a vegetarian, but you still buy avocados?”—the carbon footprint of avocados is double that of bananas. Even though we should not be too hard on the people that are trying to make better decisions, I do think these questions are valid. If you are conscious about the negative effects of your choices, you should be able to make better ones. Right?

So, a few months ago I made a new promise to myself: I will stop buying avocados. The production of avocado causes deforestation, requires 9.5 billion liters of water daily in environments of extreme drought, and avocados are mostly produced under very poor working conditions. For a long time I was able to keep my promise, but some days ago I realized I might be missing some valuable nutrients in my diet that could be supplied by avocado. I gave in and I bought an avocado. This made me think. If, as an environmentally conscious individual, I have the right intention, why doesn’t my behavior correspond to that intention? To answer this question, I dove into the field of behavior change, a broadly discussed topic in and beyond the field of sustainability. I concluded that this intention-behavior gap is not peculiar at all. Rather, the gap I perceive in my own behavior underpins that change must happen on multiple levels. From changing individual behavior, to social practices, to the narrative; all must play a role in developing and maintaining sustainable choices. In this article, I would like to take you on my personal journey towards positive long-term change in my behavior, in the hope that I can inspire you to do the same.

Old habits die hard

Motivation alone will not save the planet, a statement of which I am living proof. It shows that our behavior is influenced by much more. It is influenced by past experiences, is sensitive to learning and needs to serve some kind of future goal. Even though our intentions are good, eventually we always revert to old habits for some reason. Once the motivation and willpower fade away, we are stuck with our old behavior. According to BJ Fogg, behavioral expert at Stanford and the author of the book Tiny Habits, human behavior is driven by three factors that determine success, one of which is motivation. Motivation is our desire to do something. This can be triggered by both intrinsic motivational rewards, such as feelings of pleasure or recognition, and extrinsic rewards, such as monetary rewards or performance reviews. The other two are ability and prompts. A person’s ability is their capacity to do something, based on their knowledge, skills and physical ability. Prompts are stimuli or cues that trigger us to do something. We can design them ourselves by linking them to existing habits, flossing one tooth after every time you brush your teeth, for example. It adds a new action to an existing habit so that, when repeated, it forms a new and improved habit.

“Willpower is effective in helping us get things done, but it’s not good for creating habits over time.” — B.J. Fogg

Even though I’m able to resist buying avocados, prompts nudge me to keep doing so. Technically, I can avoid the purchase. Although they are the first things staring at me in the supermarket, I can walk past them and ignore the fact that they are there (even if they are discounted). The fact that I am aware of the damage avocado production causes alone should be enough to keep me from buying them. Apparently, however, being able and motivated not to is still not enough. According to Fogg’s Tiny Habits, this most definitely has something to do with the prompts from my surroundings. Recipes, food blogs and advertisements influence my decision to buy the Green Gold. Wanting to cook something fancy, looking for ways to keep my vegetarian diet balanced and nutritious, I’m always trying to expand my product and recipe knowledge. However, if this includes the purchase of avocado, I may fall into the avocado trap once again. Does this simply mean I’m not strong enough? Or are there other forces at work, which are well beyond my control?  

Fogg seems to assume that individuals are ultimately capable of making rational decisions. However, his perspective overlooks the social relations, material infrastructures and context that greatly influence our behavior. What about these cookbooks, the price of avocado, the responsibilities of producers to internalize negative impacts on the environment? As a response to these shortcomings, I expanded my scale of change to encompass the notion of social practices. This line of thinking emphasizes and analyzes socially constructed practices in which the individual behavior occurs, rather than the individual itself.

My behavior is a construct

The social practice theory recognizes that the purchase of an unsustainable product is not solely the responsibility of the individual. Instead, our individual behavior in deeply rooted in all sorts of social and material structures. This means I am not alone in this situation. Many other people willingly and ‘subconsciously’ unwillingly buy avocado, each for their own reasons, because they are taking part in so-called social practices. Such practices are driven by social norms, technology, infrastructure and individual preferences and skills. Practices can be anything from driving, doing the dishes, shopping, eating, et cetera. In order to change our behavior, we thus need to change the structures in which our behavior is embedded.

Regarding the consumption of avocados, this means that multiple interventions can be carried out so that I (and others) will not be triggered to buy avocados anymore. Obviously, it would help if cookbook authors and influencers would stop telling all of us that avocados are some kind of superfood. Even more so, it would help if avocados weren’t so cheap and widely available throughout the year. More money-per-avocado could go to farmers and be used to reduce their environmental impact. In other words, supermarkets and politicians may have a part to play in this. On an even higher level, trade agreements could push sustainable food production, something the European Commission is working on in the European Green Deal through its Farm To Fork Strategy. This includes country of origin as well. In addition to tightening rules in importing countries, producing countries and farmer cooperatives must enable a sustainable living environment for farmers and a proper maintenance of the land. Imagining that all of this actually happens, the question is: is making production less bad good enough to mitigate the negative impacts of avocado production? And will the social practice alter so that I and others will buy far fewer avocados?

My intuitive answer is no. I believe that the norms that drive our practices are too strong to turn the tide and change our behavior completely. All the discussion of the fact that the product is nutritious, healthy and a good addition to a vegetarian diet will still nurture the prompts (such as recipes and food blogs) to buy them. Even though the Green Gold could become more expensive through taxes or fair-trade initiatives and we should trust that regulations will make the production process more sustainable, we are still acting on the notion that doing less bad is good enough. However, these concrete and practical changes are very incremental improvements. Where does that leave the sense of responsibility we should feel when choosing to consume an exotic product from the other side of the world (with all the negative effects that come with it)? To create a new sense of responsibility, all stakeholders involved will have to adjust their perception of what’s normal. Is consumption of avocado still justifiable, knowing how much damage it causes? Does the practice still fit the story we keep telling ourselves about infinite growth with the use of finite resources? To shift our norms and radically change our behavior, we need new worldviews to direct our desired behavior.

Let’s change the narrative

To broaden our perspective on what defines sustainable choices, we must look beyond the environment we live in. Our current narrative is dominated by the idea that we are rational decision makers that can infinitely exploit natural resources and human capital, a story that is causing major ecological and social crises around the world. It shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that narratives are a powerful force. We human beings are natural storytellers. Through these narratives we can make sense of the world around us. They influence public opinion, norms and values and policy. As Philipp Blom, a German historian, explained in the Future Affairs podcast; stories are mental roadmaps from which we derive what is good and bad, important and unimportant. Narratives are a collection of stories that build up to the resolution of a common problem within a specific context, and thus guide our behavior, and we base our decisions on them. Collectively, these narratives form a worldview or interpretation of how the world thinks and works. It influences three elements: individual decision-making, the definition of values, power and law and policy-making processes. Overall, a change in narrative has the possibility to be an impetus for long-term change of behavior.

The current story on healthy, sustainable, vegetarian/vegan and nutritious food mostly tells us that we should eat greens, nuts and healthy fats. There’s a reason avocado is represented in the “Schijf van Vijf”, the Dutch version of the food pyramid, which tells us what products have the most health benefits. However, this advice only tells half the story. What if the product is healthy, but destructive to the planet and farmers on the other side of the world? To automatically make decisions that benefit both personal and planetary health, we must move towards a broader perspective and ascribe the same value to nature as to humans. What about giving rights to nature? When something or someone damages the existence and endurance of an ecosystem, the Rights of Nature law makes it possible for the ecosystem to defend itself against those harms in a court of law because it is appointed some sort of guardian. Another change in narrative can happen if we open ourselves up to the stories and culture of indigenous groups by watching documentaries, visiting museums or listening to podcasts. At least a quarter of the world’s land is owned, managed or occupied by indigenous peoples. Their relationship with nature revolves around the concept of the one-ness of life and acknowledges that humans are a part of the natural environment they live in, meaning they treat it with care, balance and respect. If we were to incorporate some of this planetary consciousness into our subjective rationality, we might come to feel very differently about the products we see in the supermarket. It would fundamentally alter the cognitive bias that drives me to buy exotic products that, moreover, must look perfect. Such a new narrative automatically emanates to other stories we tell ourselves, because they trigger fundamental shifts in our sense-making process.

“Integration - a state of unity with differentiation. In a fully integrated system, each part maintains its unique identity while operating in coordination with other parts of the system.” — Jeremy Lent
We are all responsible

Who knew that an avocado would trigger such an extensive analysis of what it means to fundamentally change behavior? To get to the heart of the problem, I started with the outer layer: looking at my habits and unraveling what drives them. I concluded that the prompts (food blogs, recipes and nutritional advice) triggered me to buy the avocado even though I’d vowed not to do so anymore. Zooming in on how these prompts can be changed, I realized bad choices are not only the fault of the individual, as they are always part of broader social practices that are more difficult to change. I was relieved; I am not the only one to blame. Instead, to truly foster behavioral change towards developing and maintaining sustainable choices, we must redefine our beliefs, culture and values through a change in narrative. Changing social practices suddenly became too weak to shift norms; these changes are too incremental. We must change the narrative we tell ourselves. Inspired by indigenous peoples and Rights of Nature laws, we should humble ourselves and take our place beside nature, rather than above it. That way, we would change our perception of norms and values that automatically put the planet and people at the same level in the discussion. Suddenly, it is not just about avocados anymore; they represent something larger. Changing the narrative will not only change individual choices, but also enable broader social and political change. Such a deep paradigm shift would help all stakeholders to direct change towards a different perception of the world, enabling us to nurture sustainable behavior that is both good for our environment and us.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
Read the article
4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Vivian Elion is an Advisor for Regional Approach at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this role, she supports provinces, municipalities and entrepreneurs in adopting national sustainability policies concerning construction, the environment, and society. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in sustainability tensions. During her tenure at FreedomLab, she developed the Deep Transitions Framework into business services.

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