Behavioral Adoption: The Greatest Challenge to Sustainable Living

By John M. Quick Sustainability has been defined by the United Nations as the human ability to meet "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." While one would be hard pressed to find an individual who is ideologically opposed to this tenet of sustainability, one may encounter similar difficulty in locating a person whose lifestyle truly embodies these ideals. Visions of a healthy, thriving, and "green" planet inspire warm and positive feelings in many people. Yet, as it turns out, human nature is such that thoughts are often not followed by actions. While the minds of some of the world’s citizens may be captivated by the notion of sustainability, taking real action in support of it can prove difficult. This discrepancy between thought and actual behavior presents sustainable living with its greatest challenge.

Theories related to innovation adoption, which explain how new ideas and practices diffuse through populations, can be applied to the sustainability challenge. A difficult truth of the adoption process is that people’s behaviors are determined not by the actual virtues or characteristics of an innovation, but instead by how they perceive these attributes, according to Gary Moore and Izak Benbasat, professors at the University of Calgary and the University of British Columbia, respectively. Fortunately, many components of sustainability (i.e. alternative energy, waste management, social wellbeing, etc.) are readily judged amiable by most citizens. However, the behavioral components of sustainability (i.e. walking instead of driving, recycling ones waste, participating in community service programs, etc.) are not so easily put into practice.

To analyze the adoption decisions that individuals make regarding whether to accept or reject a new sustainable practice, Everett Rogers, in his book Diffusion of Innovations, identifies the following five factors, all of which influence the sustainability challenge:

  1. Relative advantage is the degree to which the new behavior is believed to accrue more beneficial outcomes than current practice.
  2. Observability is how easy it is to witness the outcomes of the new behavior.
  3. Trialability is the ease with which the new behavior can be tested by an individual without making a full commitment.
  4. Compatibility is the degree to which the new behavior is consistent with current practice.
  5. Complexity is how difficult the new behavior is to implement.

Of these elements, the first two can be thought of as fixed in terms of sustainable living. Assuming that the overarching ideology behind sustainable practice is easily accepted, its relative advantage is recognized by many. On the other hand, observability is much less apparent over the course of a single human life, and it is often difficult to witness the long-term environmental impacts of individual sustainable choices. The third point, trialability, already exists to a large extent in sustainability practice. In general, individuals can choose to do things like recycle or use public transportation at will, without making a permanent commitment to do so. To achieve sustainability however, it is the final two factors of complexity and compatibility that necessitate considerable attention.

The highly interrelated factors of complexity and compatibility will be the strongest determinants of whether individuals adopt sustainable lifestyles. Currently, employing sustainable behavior is inappropriately complex and exceedingly incompatible with the everyday routine of most people. For one, people in some locations are asked to sort and disinfect their recyclables before personally delivering them to a facility. This requires significant time and effort, as well as knowledge of the requirements of a particular recycling plant. In contrast, the longstanding tradition with waste has been to simply toss it into a receptacle and never think of nor deal with it again. There is a stark disparity between these methods, for the new (recycling) behavior is highly complex compared to the standard practice.

Similar discrepancies in effort and efficiency can be found in many pursuits that promote sustainable living. Ultimately, when people are asked to make sacrifices in order to achieve outcomes that will not necessarily benefit them personally (at least in a quick and tangible way) they tend to not adopt the related (sustainable) behaviors. This is the essence of the observable difference in people’s attitudes and actions associated with sustainable behavior. Therefore, lowering complexity and increasing compatibility are the keys to promoting sustainable living.

Gene Hall and Shirley Hord, authors of Implementing Change: Patterns, Principles, and Potholes suggest that "successful change begins and ends at the individual level." If those who will define the policy, design, and implementation of sustainability want to see their thoughts put into practice, then they must make efforts to understand and support the individuals who will potentially adopt sustainable lifestyles. Once the people of the world have changed, they will have changed the world.


Hall, G., & Hord, S. (2005). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Moore, G. C., & Benbasat, I. (1991). Development of an instrument to measure the perceptions of adopting an information technology innovation. Information Systems Research, 2(3), 192-222.

Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of innovations. New York, NY: Free Press.

United Nations. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our common future (section I, part 3). Retrieved from

Contributor's Biography:

John M. Quick is an Educational Technology PhD student at Arizona State University interested in the design, research, and use of educational innovations. Currently, his work focuses on mixed-reality environments, interactive media, and innovation adoption. His portfolio is available online at