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New research finds voluntary groups can promote pro-environmental practice

Published: 30 May 2012

New research by the University of Southampton has examined the role of voluntary organisations in promoting pro-environmental behaviour change. It points to evidence of success around small-scale, local initiatives, but questions whether these can be scaled up to reach the wider public.

The research review points to qualitative and quantitative evidence of third sector initiatives that have changed people’s practices around recycling, reuse and home energy use.

Evidence suggests third sector organisations (TSOs) can be successful at changing behaviour within local, small group settings, which encourage collective action and the creation of new group norms. They have also been successful at providing alternative infrastructures – such as sustainable housing projects, community farms, food or renewable energy co-operatives – that enable behaviour change.

Voluntary groups can promote pro-environmental practice
pro-environmental practice

However, the small, local and time-intensive nature of many projects poses a barrier to implementing them on a wider scale. There is also a lack of evidence around whether TSOs can have impact on ‘harder to change’ behaviours, such as transport practices.

Dr Milena Büchs, from the Third Sector Research Centre at University of Southampton, who conducted the research, says: “Quite broad claims have been made about the ability of third sector organisations to influence behaviour. There are certainly good examples of them working with people to successfully change the way they approach things like energy use, food or waste. But evidence also suggests that many people who get involved in these projects are already engaged with environmental issues to some extent. The question that remains is whether it is possible to engage the broader public, especially where behaviour change challenges mainstream attitudes and norms.

“This may mean that additional government action is needed to change environmental practices at a national level.”

Notes for editors

The Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) conducts research on a broad range of issues affecting the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors. The Centre is led by the universities of Birmingham and Southampton, with Middlesex University leading on social enterprise research. The Centre was established to provide a strong evidence base to inform policy-making and practice. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Office for Civil Society and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

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