Making sustainability Second Nature

Nicola Saltman and Kimberly Crawford, Sustainable Communities, Waverley Council, discuss combining social research, behaviour change theory and innovative engagement approaches to inspire positive environmental action in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.  

Behavioural change and sustainability

Driving behaviour change on sustainability is challenging at the best of times, especially for a local council. To help tackle this challenge, at Waverley Council we initiated Second Nature, an integrated and targeted community environmental engagement and change program, in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. With a strong evidence-based, strategic and innovative approach to community engagement, we embarked on a path to realise the sustainability vision for local communities, to reduce our environmental impact in waste, water, transport, climate and biodiversity.

To inform the development of the program, we undertook various pieces of research to better understand community through social research data, drawing from best-practice case studies and change theory. Our research also involved a review of previous engagement initiatives and the analysis of progress against Council’s environmental targets outlined in the Environmental Action Plan. This plan sets both organisational and community targets for the broader Local Government Area (LGA).

From technical data analysis, we know that while we are tracking well to deliver on our internal targets, we are falling short of delivering on those set for the community as a whole. While infrastructure and operational changes will help in part to meet these goals, we know it’s critical to engage and educate our community to drive behaviour change. Our previous work in this area has been ad-hoc, inconsistent and not always directly linked to our targets.

We conducted a LGA-wide social research survey (500 responses in 2015), which provided key insights into community awareness levels on sustainability, as well as their intrinsic values and motivations.  The following key themes emerged:

  • People value lifestyle and natural environment, feel connected to place and believe that looking after the environment is a shared responsibility.
  • There is a strong appetite to act but they are not clear what to do or how to get involved.
  • There is a low awareness of Council programs and environmental targets.
sustainability second nature

Snapshot of key survey findings (2015). Photo: Waverley Council

As a result, we identified a strong need for a more strategic and targeted approach to community sustainability engagement to ensure initiatives are linked to environmental targets and facilitate ongoing behaviour change. This culminated in our Strategic Communities Framework, a guideline for all of Council’s sustainability engagement initiatives and the subsequent development of the Second Nature program. The Framework provides a profile of our community (and employees), outlines strategic objectives and provides guidance on best practice methodologies and theory. It also provides a structured approach to monitoring and evaluating engagement projects, and continues to inform the ongoing rollout of the Second Nature program.

Second Nature                                                                                                                                                

Second Nature has been designed as a long-term behaviour change program that builds community capacity to live, work and play more sustainably. In order to facilitate this change, we recognised the importance to first build an active and engaged database of residents with whom we could communicate. With an initial ‘I’m in’ Pledge campaign for Second Nature, we invited locals to join the collective effort to look after our environment by taking simple actions in their everyday life to make sustainability ‘second nature’. Participants are asked to commit to doing one action from options provided or of their own choosing. For example, pledgees can join Compost Revolution program to recycle food scraps, leave the car at home once a week, have shorter showers, or go plastic bag free. This aims to inspire a spirit of collaboration and collective ownership in the community, plus raise awareness of Council’s sustainability vision for the local area. In broadening our reach in the community,  Council aims to raise awareness, build an active community database, and start the ‘conversations’ to prime audiences for targeted engagement and behaviour change programs in the longer term. 

sustainability second nature

Launch of Second Nature, Photo: Waverley Council

Values and evidence-based approaches to behavioural change

Second Nature takes a values-based approach to engagement, focusing on the underlying values which shape behavioural choices. It also recognises the importance of targeting values adjacent to sustainability, which often has a spill over effect of prompting more sustainable behaviours. This has helped inform the messaging and tactics used.

The program’s approach is also linked to individual behaviour change theory. Behavioural change theory outlines the importance of influencing behaviour in order to achieve positive policy outcomes for affecting change on salient issues. The program’s behaviour change theory approach includes the theory of self-determination, which argues that individuals are more likely to change behaviour when they feel a sense of choice in and responsibility for their actions.

By committing to a single, achievable and self-determined action and saying ‘I’m in’ to making sustainability second nature, people have a greater sense of ownership over their own behavioural changes. Second Nature’s  pledge, ‘I’m in’, is facilitated via a simple online pledge platform.  Theories of social change have also informed the development of the program in recognition of the various elements of social practice which influence choices and decision making.

This evidenced-based approach has been utilised to focus local attention on sustainability issues in individuals’ everyday life.  It aims to not only inform target audiences, but allows for a more two-way participatory approach that helps foster stronger relationships within and between community members. It also allows us avenues for providing the right tools and programs to empower people to change behaviour over time, linked to key environmental goals that we are trying to achieve.

Non-engaged audiences

The program has been successful in reaching ‘non-engaged’ target audiences in its unique and innovative ‘non-government’ and resourceful approach. This includes the non-traditional but fresh and fun Second Nature ‘branding’, and its integrated outreach and communications. These methods include digital media, print media partnerships for stories, creative face-to-face activations (e.g. interactive murals and pop-ups), letterbox flyers, recruiting local ambassadors and leveraging community partnerships.

We’re also piloting an online engagement platform for Council called NationBuilder on which our pledge website is built. Traditionally used by not-for-profits for fundraising and political campaigns, Council is using this platform to centralise ‘active’ databases and employ  targeted paths for ongoing engagement. Email ‘blasts’ are sent to pledgees, based on their indicated interest areas, and potential ‘recruiters’, who are most likely to share our campaign. The database also links to pledgees’ social media channels, providing data on specific posts which may be most effective in engaging our audiences.  We can subsequently use this information to refine ongoing communications.


Over 1180 locals have joined the initial campaign, building an active community with which we’ve started to communicate and engage on a variety of behaviour change areas. We’ve reached this number from a broad audience base (school age to retiree across all suburbs) in just a few months, when traditional Council workshops and programs often attract far fewer from a narrow ‘converted’ audience. We’ve raised awareness of Council’s sustainability work, actions on an individual level, plus ways to get involved. Around 70% of participants (113 responses from August 2016) reported to have implemented their pledged action in full, or in part, and over 40% reported that the pledged action has helped them make other positive changes in their life to make sustainability second nature.

Our successful launch activation event – ‘I’m in’ Pledge Day – at Bondi Beach attracted over 350 people and received overwhelming positive feedback with pop-up stalls at local markets and other locations also attracting hundreds of other supporters.

We’ve brought on 12 local community groups as campaign partners, as well as seven local schools and childcare centres to support promotions for our work and engagement with their communities. Our media partnership with local paper Wentworth Courier has helped to spread the word widely. 

Support for the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive; including internal stakeholders and Councillors as well as external stakeholders across local business audiences, State politicians and local influencers includingthe Bondi Lifeguards. It’s also been an exciting platform to launch Council’s Instagram page, attracting new followers and engaging with new audiences online.

sustainability second nature

School supporters, Montessori East pre- and primary school. Photo: Waverley Council

Long-term behaviour change: the ‘Theory of Change’

The initial stages of the campaign helped to create a ‘buzz’ around sustainability and build a collective of engaged locals. We’ve created resources in response to identified needs and are providing ongoing support to assist pledgers in making changes in their daily life.

We’ve also developed longer term behaviour change programs across our environmental target areas utilising the ‘Theory of Change’ model. Theory of Change is essentially a comprehensive framework to drive a desired change in a particular context. These change programs have used data on progress against environmental targets to prioritise specific long-term outcomes.  We have undergone a detailed backward mapping process to identify preconditions (or necessary changes) required to achieve these outcomes.

This approach has helped us to identify the most effective interventions/activities to achieve these preconditions, along with indicators for success to measure their effectiveness. These programs will continue to frame ongoing and meaningful engagement with our Second Nature community.  The use of a comprehensive change model will also ensure that all initiatives within the campaign remain targeted and focused on longer-term environmental outcomes.

Key take-outs

  • Locally-specific social research is vital in recognising and overcoming assumptions about community motivations, which can be different from area to area.
  • It is important to understand people’s values, in addition to their knowledge, attitudes and practices, in order to effectively frame communications and engagement.
  • Taking a strategic approach to community engagement based on evidence, best practice and values-based communications can help change the traditional view of how Council works in this space, opening doors to engagement with new audiences.
  • Trialling new and innovative platforms not traditionally used in the government sector (e.g. NationBuilder) can provide great opportunities for creative engagement with difficult to reach audiences.
  • A consistent monitoring and evaluation approach, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative success indicators, is vital to assess and refine engagement effectiveness.
  • Perhaps most importantly, a multi-pronged approach that pairs innovative and reciprocal communications with a strategic plan for sustained community engagement is necessary to achieve ongoing behaviour change.

Our future challenge is to keep up momentum, continuing to build our Second Nature database, with a focus on partnerships and collaboration, and driving longer term behaviour change with targeted programs in key environmental areas.

Nicola Saltman is sustainability communications and engagement professional with a 16-year career working on sustainability and climate change here and overseas. She is currently working as Senior Environment Officer at Waverley Council in the Sustainable Communities Team.

Kimberly Crawford holds a Masters of Environment (Education for Sustainability and Social Change) and wide-ranging experience in sustainability, community engagement and behaviour change.  Currently, she is the Sustainable Communities Manager at Waverley Council in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Header photo: Waverley Council

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