Return to news
Return to Knowledge Base

5 Explanations for non-sustainable behavior

Stopping climate change requires a change in behavior. But people are still not always happy to do so. We describe five common psychological explanations why people sometimes behave in a non-sustainable way.

Stopping climate change requires a change in behavior. There's no way escaping that. Or is there? Consumers and businesses face daily choices, and unfortunately, the sustainable option doesn't always "win". Or at least not frequently enough. How is that possible? Because most people do know that climate change is happening, and that it has many negative consequences. Below, we describe five common psychological explanations why people sometimes behave in a non-sustainable way. Do you recognise them in yourself and others?

1. Immediate change vs. future outcome

Climate change is a significant and urgent problem that we will all eventually confront. Therefore, we should act on it now. However, exactely this difference in time and the lack of immediate results often lead people to choose the non-sustainable option. The non-sustainable option often provides instant results, such as arriving dry at work by taking the car or quickly reaching a vacation destination by taking a flight. In contrast, the effects of climate change are not immediately visible, leading people to opt for convenience and immediate rewards, diminishing the importance of sustainable behavior.

2. We humans: social creatures

Humans are social creatures, and social norms are crucial to us. This works both ways, positively and negatively. People seek confirmation in others' behavior but also look for excuses. Why make difficult, sustainable choices when others, or other countries, do less? What impact can an individual really have, especially when large companies contribute significantly to pollution? However, embracing the idea of "Be the change you want to see in the world" and "A better world starts with yourself" diminishes excuses for non-sustainable behavior when more people choose sustainability.

Crowd of people

3. We humans: creatures of habit

Sometimes people do what they do simply because it's what they've always done and are accustomed to. Resistance to changing habits is common, such as the reluctance to adopt a vegetarian diet or choose eco-friendly transportation. The good news is that, on average, it takes two to three months to develop a (completely) new habit, and the Earth benefits from this change for the rest of your life. Read more about habits and how to change them.

4. Resistance to behavioral influence

Autonomy is crucial for many people; they prefer making their own choices and dislike being told what to do. Attempts to influence behavior can trigger resistance. People may even feel motivated to do the opposite of what is requested, a phenomenon known as psychological reactance. This resistance also plays a role in behavior change regarding sustainability when individuals feel pressured to make eco-friendly choices.

5. Difference in locus of control

Do you believe that your individual behavior can make a difference, both in your life and on a larger scale? This perspective is associated with your locus of control.

Internal locus of control: Those with an internal locus of control believe that their behavior influences the world around them, and they feel responsible for the outcomes.

External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that their behavior has little impact and that external factors or players, like governments, large corporations, or technological developments, play a more significant role.

So, is there still hope?

Reading this article might evoke the described psychological reactions, making you reluctant to change your behavior. Because if making non-sustainable choices is human, why should you do otherwise (social norm)? Or what impact do you, as an individual, really have (locus of control)? And perhaps you feel resistance because we may be trying to influence you with this article (psychological reactance)?

We conclude with some inspiration. Behavioral change doesn't always have to be grand, happening on all fronts simultaneously. Keep it manageable for yourself and look at the steps you are already taking. Because every time you choose sustainability, it is a pure gain for our planet.

3 Easy Tips for Sustainability

Here are three simple changes with which you can have a direct and effective positive impact on the climate:

Change what you eat. Your choice of food can make a significant difference in terms of environmental impact. Opt for vegetarian or vegan options more often. Worldwide livestock farming has a massive impact on climate change. For example, if all Dutch people were to eat half as much meat annually, we would save 10.8 megatons of CO2-eq.

Change what you buy. Purchase more second-hand, refurbished items, or refrain from buying altogether. Often, you can also borrow or rent items. And if you do buy something, go to the store by bike. Online ordering and all associated transport have a tremendous impact on climate change.

Change how you travel. It's a well-known suggestion, but we still want to mention it. Transportation is still globally responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Every kilometer traveled using fossil fuels has an impact on our climate. Ask yourself each time: Can I make this trip with less CO2 emissions? If the answer is yes, well, then you know what to do.

Want to know more about sustainability? And how your organisation can take steps? Contact us via

Do you want to start data-driven sustainability?
Read more about itRead more about itRead more about itRead more about it
This article is written by:
Head of communications
Send emailLinkedInBook a meeting
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.