This chapter discusses the importance of individual action in sustainability. The goal of this chapter is to help define individual action, explain the categories and limitations of individual action, discuss its importance, and provide real life examples. It is important to develop the concept of individual action, because it is an essential part of sustainability and an important tool in creating societal change.

Individual action is the conscientious decision by a singular person to participate in sustainable behavior aimed at addressing complex problems. Consumer habits, lifestyle choices, and civic engagement are the roles individuals play. These roles are meant to advance an environmental, social, or economic aspect of sustainability. Consumer habits encompass the decisions individuals make regarding purchases. Lifestyle choices are actions that involve a deeper commitment to sustainability, such as becoming a vegetarian or choosing to use renewable energy. Civic engagement is when an individual becomes directly involved with solving a complex problem and is involved in a transdisciplinary process.

Lifestyle Choices

 Sustainable lifestyle choices are the commitments that an individual is devoted to that consciously select more sustainable options to participate in. These commitments can be reflected in transportation, eating habits, and everyday activities in which they partake in. Forgoing private transportation such as cars in favor of public transportation such as subways or riding bikes if possible, provides to reduce pollution, as greenhouse gases from transportation accounts for 28% of the United States total greenhouse gas emissions (EPA). Individuals can also make home improvements to create a sustainable lifestyle. Buying compact fluorescent lightbulbs, natural house cleaning products, and eco-friendly showerheads can all reduce inefficient energy use, promoting a greener footprint. These sustainable changes made to appliances individuals use on a daily basis provide more efficient solutions, as well as being accessible for various prices on the market.

Food habits also play an important role in creating a sustainable lifestyle. Choosing to become vegetarian or vegan has benefits in reducing the environmental impacts made by the meat industry, as enteric fermentation from livestock accounts for 28% of the United States emissions (EPA). Individuals could also focus on reducing food waste by making a meal list beforehand and shopping specifically for the items needed. These actions prevent buying excess food that may not be used and then wasted. Creating awareness around the products that are consumed and how small changes to routine can have sustainable merit and personal benefit can drastically improve an individual’s lifestyle.

Consumer Habits

 A critical action in creating a sustainable lifestyle involves understanding the importance of consumer habits. Consumer habits is the process by which customers select, buy, use, and dispose of ideas, goods, and services to satisfy their demands, and aids in understanding the motivation for their actions. Developing greener consumer habits requires individuals to hold sustainable values as a core criterion for which products they will buy.  The cause for buying greener products must outweigh the convenience of consuming less sustainable, cheaper products for the individual. Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in shifting individuals towards more sustainable products is overcoming the repetitive nature of consumer choices in favor of sustainable alternatives. Through long-term commitment to sustainable consumer choices, individuals can develop new habits that are executed routinely when purchasing products in the future.  (Verplanken, Roy).

 Civic Engagement

 Civic engagement occurs when an individual becomes a direct participant in a specific complex problem. This means that the individual is a contributor in sustainability work that is broader reaching than their personal lives. This individual will involve themselves in a sustainability project that is working towards an attainable and measurable goal. Examples of civic engagement sustainability projects could include joining a town’s environmental conservation board that is looking to preserve their eroding shoreline or advocating for an environmental justice group seeking improvements in equity. Whatever the cause may be, civic engagement is about increasing public involvement in sustainability issues and encouraging civil discourse (Civic Engagement). A more specific pathway for civic engagement is activism. Activism is primarily associated with seeking political or social change for a certain cause, but in sustainability it focuses on solving complex problems. A common example of activism relating to sustainability, is campaigning for policies that address climate change. However, activism can be directed towards any of the three pillars of sustainability.

Real Life Application

Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has inspired millions to climate strike, leading the world’s largest climate strike in history on September 20, 2019. Her role originally started as a sustainability actor, making simple lifestyle choices like choosing not to fly to reduce her carbon footprint. She entered the civic engagement sphere when she started to publicly vocalize her concerns about climate change. She submitted a climate change essay to her local newspaper that was published, gaining her momentum in activism. She then went onto organizing school strikes, called “Fridays for Future”, encouraging youth to skip school to strike in front of the Sweden parliament to reduce carbon emissions. Greta became a prominent figure in the fight for recognizing climate change when she publicly protested and influenced those around her to do so as well. Her protests gained attention, and with it, momentum, leading to millions participating in climate strikes.

Importance of Individual Action

 Individual action may seem miniscule, but if a thousand people take individual action it can create momentum that ultimately sparks an entire movement. Thus, the transition to a sustainable society will involve each individual living in that society. (Wang, 2017). If we examine the current challenge of excessive carbon dioxide emissions to our atmosphere, the problem doesn’t just lie within industrial or governmental production but is largely caused by individual action. People who use oil, coal, or gas are contributing to the overall problem, which in this case is the greenhouse effect. Additionally, the context-specific nature of sustainability work means that local persons are a central part of transdisciplinary and collaborative projects. Their involvement within these groups can not only benefit the community as a whole, but other individuals as well. This type of involvement is through a socio-ecological system, where individual action is a specific and more direct way that we can engage with our community and environment. This system represents the relationships of people and nature, emphasizing that humans must be seen as a part of, not apart from, nature (Berkes and Folke, 1998). While one person may only make a marginal difference, their action can influence others. With influence comes an increasing number of individuals engaging in sustainable actions and interacting with the socio-ecological scale at a higher level. The more people, the more power, and the opportunity to make an impact.

An example of this would be in the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability 401 class. This entry level Sustainability class introduces the topic of sustainability, it’s 3 pillars, and the many challenges and solutions that come with it. Mid-way through the semester the students in the class are tasked with a “sustainability action project”. This project requires students to choose an individual action that promotes sustainability. Examples include, consuming less or no meat, carpooling more, driving less, and a variety of other actions that have a positive effect on the environment. Students record their daily actions and then highlight their trials, tribulations, or ease of carrying out the action. The main takeaway from this project is that we all have the ability to make a change. These changes all have different impacts, some directly reduce emissions in our environment, while others can only be impactful if more people do the same. For Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist previously mentioned. Her journey started with making simple lifestyle choices, such as not flying to reduce her carbon footprint, her actions quickly snowballed. She then started to speak publicly about her concerns for future generations and started leading strikes against her own school. Her actions gained attention, so much so that Greta Thunberg is now globally recognized. She inspires environmental activists and reminds the public that we all have the ability to make a change in the way we conduct our lives.


 Although individual action is highly achievable, it can come with limitations and challenges. These challenges typically arise in two ways: either within the problem itself or from the personal barriers of the individual.

Because sustainability deals with complex problems, it is oftentimes difficult for an individual to approach a sustainable problem in the correct way. Complex problems do not have one simple solution, rather the interconnection of many different perspectives and factors contribute to finding a solution. Thus, “making a positive change in one [sustainable] factor may produce some unwanted effects in another” (The Sustainable Personality). It can be hard for an individual taking action to recognize that these factors can have an effect on one another, as well as ensure that their approach to a sustainability problem is ultimately helpful to all factors involved. In sustainability, the suggested approach to a complex problem is called a systems approach. This is the right approach because it acknowledges that, within a system, each factor can affect another involved. A system approach also helps us avoid making decisions that are helpful in the short term but can be problematic in the long run. It is important to remember that not only can it be hard to understand complex problems, it can be hard to understand sustainability as a whole. People may not know what to do because they are less aware, confused, or less educated than others about the problem.

Individual action challenges are more commonly due to personal barriers. In order for an individual to achieve a sustainable lifestyle, there will be systemic and integral life changes they must make to accomplish the transition from their typical way of living. These changes can include altering their schedule, habits, learned behavior patterns, or a shift in their personal values.

For example, if an individual wants to take shorter showers to conserve water, they will have to switch the time in which they shower, which changes their daily routine. This transition can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it depends on the individual’s perception of factors like the benefit of doing the action, what they will get from doing it, and even how it can benefit other individuals. If the individual from the shower example knows that conserving water will benefit the human population from water scarcity, then they are adjusting their personal values to make the transition.

The transition is also highly dependent on the individual’s socioeconomic status. Everyone has different personal barriers to transition, depending on their sex, age, race, religion, level of education, amount of funds available, geographic location, profession, parenthood status, or simply because they have seen someone else fail at making an individual change; there are innumerable factors. One of these factors that tends to be a common personal barrier is an individual’s level of education or the type of education provided to them. A study examining the impact of education on college students’  individual awareness of sustainability found that students taking science and technology-related courses were more likely to have an increased awareness of individual sustainability than students who are taking psychology courses after taking a sustainability survey (The Sustainable Personality).



Further, students in science and technology courses reported to be more motivated to change their behavior than students taking psychology courses.

It’s evident that the type of education provided to students can significantly limit their awareness of their role in sustainability and the likelihood of them changing their personal behaviors to pursue a sustainable lifestyle. Yet, the personal barrier of education can be helped. Although education is quite common as a personal barrier, the information of sustainability and how an individual can practice a sustainable lifestyle is out there. The internet is a great and useful tool to access all there is to know about transitioning to a sustainable lifestyle and taking individual action.

Chapter Summary

Individual action plays a crucial role in the transition to a sustainable society. Individuals can advance sustainability through multiple avenues and almost everyone has the ability to do so. Individual action is necessary for collective action within socio-ecological systems but lacks in its efficiency for addressing complex and wicked problems. A variety of motivations exist for individuals to become involved in sustainability. However, many barriers are in place that can set back an individual from creating and transition to a more sustainable life. Individual action is essential for addressing sustainability issues and creating meaningful impact but is only a sliver of the pie for creating sustainable change within the socio-ecological system.



Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the importance of education in individual action?
  2. What is one way you could use activism to promote sustainable action?
  3. What does the idea of a socio-ecological system mean for individual action?
  4. What is one limitation that you may experience transitioning into a more sustainable lifestyle?


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