How to help people set their carbon-cutting goals

post author

Post author

Saskya Huggins


The goal-setting theory of motivation is one of the most studied areas of workplace psychology – and there’s lots we can take from this and transfer to a domestic or community setting. In this blog we will uncover some of the simple tricks you can use to increase the likelihood of turning people’s best intentions into concrete action – through the carefully managed encouragement of goal setting in your community.

There’s a list pinned to my fridge – a summary of all the things my family want to achieve this year. The writing of the annual list has become a New Year’s Eve ritual – and serves as a public declaration of our good intentions (lose 5 kilos by June), educational endeavours (learn to swim 10 metres), and wish fulfilment (see a swallowtail butterfly).

As I reach for the milk, the list acts as a frequent reminder and permanent record against which I can check our progress. So what makes for a good goal? We’ve already looked at this in some detail in an earlier blog, but just to recap:

specific, measurable, agreed realistic and timed – SMART

Having spent many years working in large organisations with performance management systems, I’ve learnt the importance of being specific about goals. After all simply stating “lose some weight” means a single ounce lost technically fulfils the goal. Setting easily achieved goals fail to motivate: where’s the challenge? But equally, an impossible goal can kill enthusiasm too. Asking my four year-old to swim 100 metres would quickly result in the end of swimming lessons!

It’s obvious, but knowing when a goal needs to be achieved by, and how you’ll measure you’ve got there are also important. So, the first step in helping people reduce their carbon footprint is to encourage them to set SMART carbon-cutting goals.

goal-setting tools

Several community-based schemes incorporate goal-setting in their approach. These include:

  • The Greening Campaign
    This involves people deciding on five small actions they will do to reduce their CO2 and letting the community know they are doing this by placing a card in their window to signal their commitment. (link:
  • The Low Carbon Living Programme
    As part of the programme, participants are encouraged to set their own goals using a carbon-cutting action plan. Commitment to their key goals is further reinforced through the use of pledge postcards. Both can be downloaded from the Supporting Greener Living resource library, under the Quicksilver carbon calculator.

Setting goals in the first place is one thing, but there are a number of additional factors that influence how likely a person is to achieve those goals:

choosing your own goals

Considering what scope there is to allow people to set their own goals, rather than imposing goals on them is the first area to consider. As we know from personal experience, we feel much more inclined to work towards a target we’ve set ourselves than one imposed on us by our boss. My kids got to set their own goals for the year – but that’s not to say I didn’t encourage them with suggestions to steer their choices.

active goal-setting

Active commitments are more likely to be achieved than those you passively agree to, as a volunteering study by Coiffi and Garner illustrates. They found that students who had to actively state a commitment to volunteering by filling in a form were more likely to actually follow through with that commitment than those who were told to simply leave the form blank. The difference was striking – with 49% of those who actively committed turning up, as opposed to just 17% of those who had been passive in their agreement.[i]

Writing down your commitment yourself can be important. It transpires that customers who fill in credit agreements themselves rather than have a salesperson do it for them are less likely to cancel that agreement, and when patients are asked to complete details of their next visit on their own appointment card are less likely to miss the appointment than when the receptionist helpfully does it for them. They conclude that securing an active, written commitment can make the difference to the likelihood of meeting our best intentions.[ii]

So, it may be helpful to offer to fill in a carbon-cutting commitment form for participants but, by doing so, you could inadvertently reduce their likelihood of success.

following the herd – the importance of social norms

We might like to think we are independently-minded, but in reality, it transpires that we are heavily influenced by our perception of what everyone else is doing, and how we behave is heavily influenced by the actions of others.

In one experiment, signs were put in hotel bathrooms encouraging the reuse of towels. The study found that messages that implied it was the norm to reuse towels (“the majority of guests reuse their towels”) were more effective than those than simply focused on the environmental benefits. [iii]

By reassuring people that the action is not only a normal thing to do – but something that is done by people in their immediate community or on your programme – could result in a higher success rate. Schemes such as the Greening Campaign, which encourage participating households to publicly display a postcard in their window, can help create a sense of an environmentally-minded norm in your community.

modelling good behaviour

Seeing the desired behaviour advocated and carried out by others can be more persuasive than simply reading about it. In one study, university students proved more likely to reduce the amount of water they used in the shower when seeing another student use water sparingly, than when they simply had a sign encouraging them to do so.[iv]

We’re not advocating communal showering – but you might like to consider how you can use modelling in your community to promote greener living. Are there households already leading greener lives who could share their experiences? What roles might street champions play as advocates of greener living and so make people feel more obliged to carry out actions such as recycling? Eco-homes open days are a great opportunity to model and share the different approaches to energy reduction in homes, and serve as a useful way to access information and experiences.


Making a commitment is an important step in achieving our goals – but how we make it can be key in how likely we are to achieve them. It seems that making written commitments, is more effective than verbal ones. Public commitments are more likely to be effective than those made in private – the theory being that we value consistency between what we say and what we do. In fact, this can drive not just behaviour change – but also shifts in attitude, which is important in helping make changes sustainable over time.[v]

Not everyone will feel comfortable pronouncing their commitment from the rooftops – but you can encourage people to share their plans with friends, or with a small group of people. Even better, if you can encourage them to also commit to advocating to others do likewise, this has been shown to increase their likelihood of achieving their own goals.[vi]

providing feedback and support

Helping someone set a goal is only part of the role we can play in helping them achieve it. We can help people get feedback about how they are progressing against their goal – by encourage them to measure their energy use or carbon footprint for example (see our last blog on Getting the Measure of Things). By knowing their goals we can also pinpoint technical support and advice they may need to achieve them.

Ultimately of course it’s not just the number of goals you help one household achieve that matters – its achieving that at scale which will be the true measure of success in greening your community. Do send post up any specific queries you might have about goal-setting in your community.

Saskya Huggins & Jo Hamilton


[i] On Doing the Decision: Effects of Active Versus Passive Choice on Commitment and Self-Perception. Cioffi & Gardner

[ii] Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.  Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini

[iii] A room with a viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Goldstein & Griskevicius, Journal of Consumer Research, 35

[iv] The Relative Effectiveness of Models and Prompts on Energy Conservation: A field experiment in a shower room. Aronson & O Leary, Journal of Environmental Systems, 12

[v] Review of Behaviour Change Tools. Department of Transport, Energy & Infrastructure, Government of South Australia, 2009

[vi] The Effect of Commitment on Adoption & Diffusion of Grasscycling. Cobern, Leeming & Dwyer, Environment and Behavior, 27



Leave a comment