How do we create better habits for ourselves and the planet? Catch up on highlights from our expert and reader debate.

1. Saying “be more sustainable” is not effective

“We’re not as rational as we would like to think. More information is not the answer” opened GreeNudge and CICERO’s Steffen Kallbekken. Unilever’s Richard L Wright added “Successful communication requires a very high level of engagement – making it expensive. We need cleverer, more cost-effective ways to engage people.” To illustrate this, Sainsbury’s Sarah Ellis reminded us: “Customers can spend as little as 6 seconds making a decision at the shelf.”

2. Without planning for context, long-term change is tough

The environment we make our decisions in is key to creating sustained change, Carl Hughes at the Wales Centre for Behavioural Change, explained: “We have to identify behaviours we’d like to see, then arrange rewarding environments – or disincentives for undesirable behaviours…If it’s not practical to make permanent changes to the environment, or if the effects wear off as we habituate to their presence in our environment, then we may not see long term impact.

3. Social norms are a powerful tool

Arizona State University’s Michelle Shiota illustrated the power of social norms with a great study, in which hotel towel reuse increased by 36% when a card stating “most people” reuse was used rather than one describing the environmental benefits.

Mike Daniels, of The Behavioural Architects agreed that in areas including public transport and waste, they find “the social norms card is one of the very first we explore playing in any behaviour change context”

(We also saw social norms come into effect amongst the panel when asked about their shower habits!)

4. Social norm changes are often incremental

“For example, the environmental impact of carrier bag charging is in many ways debatable. However, the change pushes reuse and environmental impact to front of mind, raises awareness and reminds at every checkout. This wider impact and the creation of a new social norm have yet to be quantified but achievable change in incremental steps is crucial. (Carl Hughes)

5. Social norms work because they can trigger value-change

If the motivation is extrinsic (eg: monetary) the change is unlikely to be sustained once the incentive’s removed, and also unlikely to be transferred to other domains of behaviour. If the motivation is intrinsic (eg: value-based) the behavioural change is much more likely to be sustained over time (Steffen Kallbekken)

6. There’s a difference between what we say and what we do

There is a broad societal desire to become more sustainable, less wasteful and more efficient, however there are barriers to this becoming a reality. First, not everyone shares these desires. Second, those who do may not actually behave in accordance with these desires – the Value-Action gap. (Carl Hughes)

7. No-one knows how long habits take to form

Hermione Taylor discussed theories from the “21 day rule” to “doing something 66 times”. And commenter Ruth contributed health sector thinking: 65 days for eating habits and 91 days for exercise.

8. We should explore “life transition moments”

New work from Surrey University’s Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group looks at the scope for household behaviour change facilitation at “moments of transition”, eg house-moves, retirement or starting a family.

9. We should leverage our instinct for play

When we’re stressed or happy we’re more likely to fall back on old behaviours, said Michelle Shiota.

10. There’s a lot more to discuss!

We had a fantastic range of questions submitted, and many more threads of debate. than we can reflect here. We’ll be exploring the discussions and the questions we didn’t get to answer for future debates and commissions.