How I see me: The power of identities for encouraging sustainable actions

Posted in: Environment, Research, Sustainability

As nations worldwide scramble to manage the effects of COVID-19, other issues are temporarily pushed aside. And yet, the response to the pandemic shows us that widespread social change is possible. Lives will be lost because of the climate crisis, as with the virus. Fires, floods, hurricanes and of course climate-related health issues require as dramatic a response as we are affording the current health crisis. For now, however, climate change is not viewed with the same urgency as COVID-19. In this environment, how do we persuade people to take corrective action? Alina Mia Udall explores how to encourage sustainable behaviour, using identity theory.

The past few years have been characterised by the climate crisis. Extreme weather events are increasing, particularly in the global south. It is slowly becoming apparent that large scale behavioural change is needed to stop our planet from becoming uninhabitable.

Environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion often use campaigns to encourage behaviours that help preserve the planet, promote improvements to it, as well as preventing further harm - such as discouraging avoidable energy use. However, evidence says that these campaigns may be ineffective because they do not focus on how individuals see themselves – their identity and their impact on the environment, and their role in preserving the world. In a recent article, we show the power of identity research when it comes to saving the planet.

Why are identities relevant to sustainability research?

We are interested in encouraging sustainable actions at any level of economy and difficulty – be it as easy as recycling or as difficult as installing a smart meter, as cheap as turning off lights or as expensive as purchasing an electric car.

Getting an individual to make one or all these changes will depend on what psychologically influences them to engage in such actions. We undertook this study because we aimed to understand what these factors are, so we can increase the effectiveness of such campaigns. We focus on individuals because the collective impact of many people’s small actions can lead to large global changes.

The three P’s of identity

We found that there are three main types of identity that are important for encouraging sustainable actions.

  1. Personal (me) identity: How I see myself personally, e.g. as an environmentalist, or a researcher.
  2. People (we) identity: How I see myself in relation to other people, e.g. as part of a group of environmentalists, or researchers.
  3. Place identity: How I see myself in relation to places, e.g. as affiliated with a national park, or the University of Bath.

What identity in sustainability research means for policy?

 We believe that we can encourage sustainable actions by identifying key identities and framing messages and interventions to change how people see themselves in relation to the world around them.

How to use identity to encourage sustainable actions in three steps:

  1. Identify the relevant identity for the sustainable action in question. That is, not all the 99 different identities are relevant for all the over 600 different types of actions studied. For example, a cyclist identity was not relevant for reducing car use but was relevant for increasing public transport use for work. Therefore, when interested in encouraging public transport for work, encouraging a cyclist identity is suitable. These levels of nuance are important for delivering effective messages.
  2. Only choose pro-sustainable identities. That is, those identities that seem positively related to the concept of sustainability. For example, some identities (such as ‘cyclist’) relates to sustainability positively because the identity is concerned with minimising harm to the planet. However, a ‘motorist’ identity relates negatively to sustainability because it increases harm to the planet and is therefore useless to use when encouraging sustainability.
  3. Finally, decide if the selected identity will be based on personal, people, and/or place and emphasise this clearly. Tailor messages to be specific, and signpost the me/we/place that reflect personal/people/place identities, respectively. In other words, making the relevant identity prominent will increase the strength of the person’s identity and thus increase the corresponding sustainable behaviour related to it. For example, to encourage a cyclist identity (which we understand to increase usage of public transport for work) you could craft messages based around the following:
    1. Personal (me) focused cyclist identity – ‘please think about the planet when going to work - positively imagine yourself cycling’.
    2. People (we) focused cyclist identity – ‘please think about the planet when going to work - positively imagine yourself with others cycling, and your power as a group’.
    3. Place focused cyclist identity – ‘please think about the planet when going to work - positively imagine yourself in your favourite place when cycling, and how your actions protect it’.

What next for identity in sustainability research

We are now testing these specific personal, people, and place type identities to see which leads to the most sustainable actions. Next time we will share a study which assesses all the existing data on identities relevant for sustainable actions, referred to as a meta-analysis. If you wish to test/study/encourage sustainable actions via identity, please do get in touch. We would love to add your studies to our analysis. And, if you would like any tips or advice on encouraging identity and sustainable actions, please let us know!

Read an interview with Mia on the topic here.


Udall, A. M., De Groot, J. I. M., De Jong, S. B., & Shankar, A. (2020). How do I see myself? A systematic review of identities in pro-environmental behaviour research. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 1–34.

Image provided by A Udall


Posted in: Environment, Research, Sustainability


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