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The Psychology behind Green Behaviours

By Emma Watson
6th November 2018

Research tells us there is often a gap between what people do at home and what they do when they come to work. Less is known about green behaviours at work.


Ella Jenkins is a recent master’s graduate in Organisational Psychology from City, University of London. As part of her degree, Ella ran a survey across a random selection of our clients earlier this year. The survey aimed to understand the influence that four specific social and behavioural factors had on whether individuals recycled their waste or not. Most people are aware of the need to behave sustainably and engage in green behaviours. However, research tells us that there is often a gap between what people do at home and what they do when they come to work. Environmental psychology has made progress in understanding the factors that influence green behaviours at home, but less is known about green behaviours at work. Given that we spend a large majority of our waking lives at work, I was surprised by the lack of academic research, and keen to find out more.


What I investigated

I chose to focus on the relative influence of personal values, organisational culture and the physical environment have on employee recycling behaviour. I was also interested in whether habits for negative behaviours, such as being in the habit of not recycling act as a barrier to people recycling their waste at work. I conducted an online survey addressing these factors, and, with help from Carbon Intelligence, distributed it to employees working in the leisure, transport and environmental sector. The survey specifically measured four factors:

  • Employee personal norms: values and feelings related to recycling
  • Work-based social norms: perceptions about social pressure to recycle
  • Perceived behavioural control: feelings about how easy and accessible recycling is at work
  • Habit strength – to not recycle: the urge to throw all waste in the general waste bin and not separate and recycle it
  • Individuals were also asked to report how much of their waste they had recycled in the past week



Key Findings

Personal norms and perceived behavioural control were positively associated with recycling behaviour. This means that individuals were more likely to recycle if they thought of the behaviour as desirable, morally good, easy and within their control.

Social norms had a much greater effect on recycling when personal norms were weaker. The effect of social norms suggests that even if individuals have low motivation themselves to recycle, they will be more likely to do it if they see others around them recycling.

There was no evidence that habits prevented recycling within this sample. This indicates that waste disposal habits either did not exist or they were not strong enough to have a statistically significant impact. Habits can often be a barrier that prevents intentions turning into actions, so it’s positive that recycling does not appear to be affected by habits. This may be due to the type of work that survey respondents do, which was largely office based. If we were to survey employees from a more process oriented working environment, where tasks are habitual or routine, we may see a different result.

What we can learn from this research

  • Be aware of the context – before designing environmental interventions it is important to understand the strength of the relevant norms (values, feelings and perceptions related to the intervention), perceived behavioural control and habits within the organisation. This will enable careful targeting to achieve the most impact. Surveys, interviews and other forms of stakeholder consultation are required to build effective strategies and interventions.
  • Develop and emphasise social norms for green behaviours – by actively seeing others engaging in recycling, and openly talking about the benefits of recycling, social norms to recycle can develop. Individuals are then motivated to behave in accordance with the relevant social norms, even if they themselves do not value recycling. Make sure leaders and influencers in your organisation are visibly demonstrating the behaviours you want to encourage.
  • Focus on the benefits of recycling and the impact we can all have – while personal norms are harder to develop externally, emphasising the environmental benefits of recycling, or the negative impacts of not recycling, can be an effective way to encourage individuals to value sustainable behaviours at work.


The findings from this study can be applied across the board to many environmental behaviour change initiatives. Carbon Intelligence puts environmental psychology from theory into practice through our employee behaviour change programmes to understand how to make it stick.