Changing actions, not just beliefs: Community-Based Social Marketing

by Naomi Mihilewicz

A quick scan of advertisements and the news reveals that the environment is climbing in public priority. So why is it that so many of us continue to engage in environmentally unsustainable behaviours, like idling our cars, wasting water and throwing away recyclables? Apparently there is a gap between information and action.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, an environmental psychologist and sustainability consultant, has made a career out of figuring out how to get humans to take on sustainable behaviours. He designed Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM), a method of fostering behaviour change. It differs from traditional marketing that simply barrages people with messages about what they 'ought' to do. This is effective at raising awareness of an issue, but not at directly changing people’s actions. CBSM focuses on community-level change that includes person-to-person interaction.


McKenzie-Mohr outlines how to apply CBSM principles in his book Fostering Sustainable Behaviour. The first step is to identify what keeps people from engaging in the desired behaviours -- he calls these 'barriers'. It is important that the investigation into identifying barriers be done without bias. The true barriers may not be stereotypical or immediately visible. Barriers are specific to each behaviour. For example, a barrier to shopping with reusable bags might be forgetting to put them into the car, where the barrier causing people not to compost is that the compost bin is too far away.

Once true barriers have been identified, there are various 'tools' one can use to remove those barriers. Personal commitment is one of the eight tools that have been proven to change people's behaviour. Another example is incentives, like carpool lanes or user fees for waste disposal.

An organization can then design a program to implement the tools and change behaviours. It is important to try the program first on a pilot level, and reevaluate the success of the chosen tools. Comparing the behavior changes of the pilot group to that of an unaffected control group is ideal to measure how effective your program is.

Once you have created an effective program, and rolled it out on a full scale, it is important to share the successes with the participants. For example, let them know how many liters of water they have saved by participating in a water conservation program.

McKenzie-Mohr has created a website for CBSM at You will find the text for his book and much more information on the site. Case-studies and articles are all available through the website to assist you in your program development.

One example of a Saskatchewan group who has incorporated CBSM into their work is the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. They apply it in their work on reducing pesticide use and encouraging water conservation.

[Source: May 2010 WasteWatch ]