An improved cookstove. Photo: SEI.

Clean cookstoves appeared on the market a decade ago, with hopes that they would sharply reduce exposure to indoor air pollution for 3 billion of the world’s poorest people.

But the stoves have not reached universal adoption despite being safe, accessible and affordable. Why? Because they don’t match the lifestyle of the intended users, who still prefer traditional open fire stoves.

For example, farmers need to cook three meals at once for a day in the field, but most of the improved stoves have only one burner. Fuel is also sometimes not available at the closest corner store, and food cooked on a biofuel stove doesn’t have the desired smoky flavour.

In short: Switching to a clean cookstove is more about personal choices and livelihood needs than it is about effectiveness of the device.

Insight into human behaviour is integral not only to cookstove adoption, but also to any sustainability-related project and policy. Here are seven reasons why this approach is sound.

Marie Jürisoo, Research Fellow at SEI is going through a user journey with potential adopters of clean cookstoves in Zambia. Photo: SEI.

1. People are at the core

A behavioural approach puts people at the heart of any development intervention.To implement change, we must first understand what motivates people and what drives their behaviour. Insights from behavioural science can be used for policy diagnostics by building an in-depth picture of the intervention context, prior to policy development. This will allow for precise implementation.

Fiona Lambe, Behaviour and Choice Initiative, SEI.

2. Change takes effect in system defaults

If we understand behaviour, we can change norms and bring about systemic change. All our lifestyle choices and daily decisions, how we commute, what we eat and what we wear, have an impact on landscapes and watersheds and on the quality of life of other people. Sustainability is a lot about personal behaviour, but it is also about normative systems that define and influence our choices. Behavioural science connects the dots between individuals and socio-economic structures.

Brett Jenks, Rare.

3. Public policy becomes more effective

Ultimately, all government initiatives are aiming at some sort of behaviour change, whether it is about promoting recycling or the use of electric cars. The tools governments have at their disposal, like taxes, subsidies, regulation and information are also behavioural in nature. So, if you work with public policy, good insight into behaviour is pretty important.

—Toby Park, UK Behavioural Insights Team, BTI.

4. Theory matches with reality

Behavioural science can bridge theoretical climate models with the reality people live in. For far too long, we have been talking about changing a theoretical human, somebody whom we can regulate without asking why they do what they do. And it did not work. Behavioural science is our best bet to embrace the change that is needed to survive in the era of climate change.

Charlotte Streck, Climate Focus.

5. Consumer engagement goes up

Understanding behaviour is critical if we want to engage consumers in making the world more sustainable. Right now, most of our models rely on antiquated thinking, portraying people as rational, but humans are much more sophisticated than that. It is essential that those working with sustainability take it into account. Otherwise, we can forget about changing the world.

Daniel Vennard, Better Buying Lab, WRI.

6. Sustainable choices become natural

Insights from behavioural science can help us to create the right environment for sustainable consumption.We all think we are independent thinkers and that we have a plan, but actually most of the time our choices are framed by what is available, cheaper and easier. Applying behavioural insights can help us to arrange the environment in way that sustainable choices are natural.

Eva van den Broek, University of Wageningen

7. Precise solutions emerge

Applying behavioural science to sustainable development can foster the culture of testing.We often hypothesise about certain solutions, but we don’t know whether they really work. Working with a behavioural approach provides us with an opportunity to see if our hypothesis is right, if different contexts produce different results, and the limitations of the solutions we came up with.

Adam Levine, Cornell University

Opinions presented in this article come out of the Development and Environment Behavioural Insights Network (DEBIN). Get in touch with Ekaterina Bessonova if you would like to join the network.