Chartered psychologist, behavioural change expert and founder of STRIDE and Stride Coaching, Dr Phillipa Coan puts people at the heart of an organisation’s environmental strategy, helping decision makers and employees to build the right corporate culture to meet sustainability objectives. Here she tells Dolly Jones about her journey in sustainability so far, how it has impacted her career, and what the most effective catalysts are for instigating change.
How has your interest in environmental sustainability shaped your career?
Following my PhD I decided to set up my own company as I couldn’t find other psychologists at the time who were working in the area [of sustainability]. Changing people’s behaviour is tricky. Changing people’s behaviour to be more environmentally sustainable is really tricky, as there are multiple psychological and physical barriers to navigate. I realised early on that I would need help! At Stride I work with a team of psychologists and more technical energy management and sustainability specialists who contribute a diverse set of skills. In the last year I have also set up a sister company – Stride Coaching – which leverages my academic research and experience in corporate sustainability to a broader set of challenges facing organisations today. We provide coaching, leadership and presentation/impact training. Over the next few years I’m looking forward to combining my two companies so I can specialise in coaching sustainability leaders and emerging sustainability teams.
Where did you study?
I did my first degree at the University of Birmingham, my Masters at City University of London, and my PhD at the University of Leeds. So I managed to cover a significant stretch of the UK!
What was the original motivation for your career?
I’ve always been fascinated by why people behave in the way they do and so a career in psychology was a no brainer. Then, having worked as a Business Psychologist for a few years I came across an article written by researchers at Leeds University Business School. They were calling for more Business Psychologists to apply their expertise to the climate crisis given improving the environmental performance of an organisation is similar to any other traditional organisational change challenge. I immediately knew it would be a really interesting topic for a PhD and provide a great opportunity to learn more about sustainability.
How does this interest manifest itself in your general lifestyle?
I am definitely more mindful of my own behaviour as a result of working in the field. I have learnt so much from others about how to be more sustainable from reducing plastic and chemicals brought into my home, eating less meat, monitoring and reducing our household energy consumption, and exploring alternative travel options where possible. But importantly I’m also aware how difficult it can be. I face challenges with my own sustainable behaviour every day. I often need to take a step back, review my behaviour, spot where I can make positive changes and commit to them. I set myself goals all the time. What I find particularly useful is sharing ideas with friends, family and colleagues. It’s an ongoing journey for us all to live more sustainable lifestyles. And of course, whilst changing our own habits is essential, putting pressure on governments and corporations to change their practices is equally important.
What are the most effective catalysts for change?
My top five catalysts would be:
- Make the more sustainable choice convenient and easy for people (i.e. make the default option the most environmental) whilst making the poor environmental choice inconvenient.
- Provide impressive stats on the number of people currently engaged in the environmental behaviour you’re trying to promote.
- Involve your target audience in decisions about how to achieve greater sustainability, whether your own workforce or your customer base. They need to be engaged and ‘own’ as much of the initiative as possible.
- Investigate what is going to motivate your target audience. It may not be the sustainability message. What other co-benefits are associated with being more sustainable? e.g. positive health outcomes, cost savings, reduced business risks, a more engaged workforce, meeting legislation, attracting and retaining talent in your company, protecting your children’s future, etc.
- Provide as much feedback to your target audience as possible following behaviour change. How are they doing against set goals? How much energy/carbon/money have they saved? (and always present savings with no jargon so rather than kWh savings refer to, for example, the equivalent number of car journeys etc.)
How are companies adapting to sustainability priorities?
Things are moving pretty fast these days with many companies getting better at making innovation an integral part of how they operate. This dynamism makes it hard to say which companies are leading on all fronts. Many retailers and brands also use the same suppliers and factories so behind every brand there’s a complex supply web. Companies, in general, need to have more transparency about where their raw materials are coming from and how they’ve been obtained and processed so that everyone is more evidently working towards a low carbon, zero waste circular economy.
There are some really good innovations gaining traction especially switching products to be reusable. For example, biodegradable beeswax and resin food wraps instead of clingfilm and modular design to encourage reusable and recyclable components rather than fully replacing products.
The companies doing well are those that have gone beyond seeing sustainability as a mere add-on and are instead fully integrating it into their corporate strategy and culture with ambitious targets and a clear, visible environmental policy articulated and lived out by the leadership team.
What are the riskiest prohibitors to change?
Attitude wise I would say taking the view that it’s too late and that any one individual’s attempt at being more sustainable is a drop in the ocean compared to big corporations and other countries. This is where the previously mentioned catalysts really play a crucial role.
Behaviour wise I would say reducing big things – flight travel for holidays is one of the most challenging areas as it can be in conflict with other life goals. People could opt for one less flight a year, or taking a UK holiday every other year, or travelling international train instead where possible.
What can people do immediately?
- Simply buying less and buying better, especially when it comes to clothes and personal items. For example, only replace an item when it’s worn out and don’t have more than you really need.
- Talk to your friends and family about it. Bring it up in conversation and discuss what everyone is already doing to be more environmental and ethical. You’ll be surprised what you can learn from others.
- Make suggestions to your organisation/children’s school/local community.
- Vote for a political party who have environmental health and sustainability at the top of their agenda.
- Be vocal to the companies you buy from in terms of your expectations you have regarding more sustainable products/ingredients/practices/supply chains.
- Talk to those people whose behaviour you are trying to change. Find out what they think the barriers and opportunities are – listen and work together to build a strategy moving forward.
- Interact with your supply chain. Often you just need to ask a few very simple questions to your suppliers to find out what they are doing well and what areas you need to put pressure on them to improve. Make it clear what your expectations are. You will likely find you are not the first organisation to ask these questions and better still you may find out that your suppliers have already introduced sustainable processes and policies which you didn’t realise.
How can we prevent people from feeling disenfranchised?
I think companies need to recognise they are in a position to integrate and socialise a large proportion of their workforce and customer base, which will inevitably include people who may be fairly disengaged with sustainability issues.
An organisation is an ideal context for behaviour change given there is formal and informal learning that already takes place, as well as norms and unspoken codes of conduct. They have the power to generate significant change across a diverse group of people. Importantly, they should also consider habits, both good and bad, that are formed outside the workplace as behaviours spill over. Organisations need to view their employees as ‘whole’ people who operate in multiple social contexts; if you target behaviour change in only one context, then new behaviours become harder to stick.
Regarding customers, quite simply, organisations need to interact with them. Rather than just telling them what they are doing regarding sustainability, involve them in some of the decision making and try and have a positive impact on their own sustainable behaviour. Take fashion, for example, why not get your customers to decide on which sustainability initiatives to run with by gathering their ratings across different options? Why not provide discounts at various tailors so customers can fix garments or tweak designs once they’re bored or they’ve changed shape, so the garment is re-used? Why not provide a rental service or a recycling drop off option in stores making it easier for their customers? There are lots of opportunities to unite people towards a common objective.