Ethical sustainability footprint for individual motivation

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 28. March 2012 - 0:45
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Ethical sustainability footprint for individual motivation

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Keywords: behaviour, motivation, values, indicators

Presented as a poster at the
Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference
London, UK, 26-29 March 2012
in the session on
Bridging the knowledge-action gap: The role of values for transforming lifestyles


Transforming individual behaviour for sustainability is a major challenge, since behaviour reflects underlying values more than intellectual understanding of the issues. Individuals can calculate their ecological footprint, but it measures impacts, not motivations. Building on recent research on values-based indicators in various group and project contexts, this paper adapts the approach to individual self-assessment of the ethical principles behind behavioural transformation towards sustainable lifestyles. The major dimensions of the ethical sustainability footprint could include respect for the environment, empowerment, appreciating unity in diversity, trustworthiness, justice/solidarity, and moderation /detachment from material things. Assessment would be through indicators of individual behaviours and attitudes associated with these values. Adaptations would be required to allow for different cultures and levels of development, and the instruments would be designed to compensate for the difficulties of self-assessment. Such an approach would help individuals to become more conscious of their values, to identify possible contradictory attitudes, and to ensure consistency in their efforts to live more sustainably.


It is widely acknowledged that achieving planetary sustainability requires a fundamental transformation of the world economy and society, and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is an attempt to achieve this at the intergovernmental level. However a transformation is also needed in our social goals and purpose (BIC 2010) to be coherent with the ethical values inherent in the concept of sustainable development (Dahl 2008). This paper focuses on change at the individual level.

The transition to sustainability from the consumer society for the privileged minority, and finding more sustainable development paths for the majority that is struggling to survive, both require individual action as part of a multi-level effort, from intergovernmental frameworks through production processes and energy sources to individual decisions about how to produce and what to buy. The inertia of our present economy which cultivates excessive consumption in the name of endless material growth has sold a vision of individual success that produces strong public resistance to the messages of restraint in environmental education and consumer citizenship. Even where the reality of our predicament is understood, it is easier to follow the crowd than to try to live differently. For the poor, there are often no evident options. Since behaviour reflects underlying values more than intellectual understanding of the issues, transforming individual behaviour for sustainability must address the ethical level.

One of the more widespread and successful comparative indicators of impact on planetary resources and capacities is the Ecological Footprint ( While it is often used to compare countries (, it can also be calculated by each individual to determine their own ecological footprint relative to their per capita share of the planet's resources ( However, this measures impacts, not motivations. It looks at the effect, but not the cause, and is not very sensitive to individual changes in behaviour.

Since we seldom consciously consider or question our values, one essential step is to help individuals become more aware of what their values are, and where there might be inconsistencies between different values, or between their values and behaviour or lifestyle. Developing a set of indicators of an individual's sustainability values could help to achieve this (Dahl 2012). It gets closer to the root causes of an individual's unsustainable lifestyle, and can have an emotional impact with the power to motivate change.


Recent research in an EU-funded project on values-based indicators of education for sustainable development (Podger et al. 2010; Harder et al.; Burford et al. this session) has generated a detailed set of indicators for behaviours associated with values in various group and project contexts. This paper is a conceptual exercise to adapt the same approach to individual self-assessment of the ethical principles behind behavioural transformation towards sustainable lifestyles. The aim is to increase self-awareness of one's positive sustainability values and to encourage their development, while signalling areas where improvement is needed.


The major dimensions of the ethical sustainability footprint could include respect for the environment, empowerment, appreciating unity in diversity, trustworthiness/integrity, justice/solidarity, and moderation and detachment from material things.

Respect for the environment involves an understanding that we are not separate from the environment, but part of it, dependent on it, and intimately linked to the natural processes of the biosphere and to the organisms with which we share it. Many indigenous peoples saw no separation between them and their surroundings. Many religions teach stewardship for God's creation. Science has demonstrated our environmental dependence and vulnerability in many ways. Regardless of its origin, the result is a desire not to cause environmental damage.

Empowerment reflects the ability to act and to make a difference, an awareness that many drops can make an ocean. Its absence is a frequent cause of lack of motivation. in a community or educational situation, it can be the result of encouragement and accompaniment, and other positive reinforcement.

Appreciating unity in diversity reinforces teamwork and encourages innovation, since it includes the recognition that there can be many different solutions appropriate to different situations, and that not everyone has to do the same thing to achieve a shared goal. It inspires confidence in one's own abilities. It also overcomes prejudice and facilitates the appreciation of others.

Trustworthiness and integrity are the result of consistency between words and actions, and an inner as well as outer honesty. Cultivating these values facilitates group interactions, brings respect, and motivates consistency in sustainable behaviours.

A sense of justice and solidarity is behind the absolute priority given to the poor and the protection of future generations in the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development (UNCED 1987, p. 43). It has the power to tip the balance between self-interest and the common interest or the interests of others so necessary to achieve sustainable behaviours.

Finally, especially for those tempted by the consumer society, applying moderation and a sense of detachment from material things can be a good guide to responsible living. Developing the capacity to distinguish needs from wants is an important step towards sustainable consumption and resistance against commercial manipulation. Again, this is a value at the root of many spiritual traditions, and contributes to physical and mental health.

Together, these ethical principles cover essential dimensions of the underlying motivations for sustainable living.


Assessment would be through indicators of individual behaviours and attitudes associated with these values. The value statements could be assessed simply agree/do not agree, on a scale (not important--> very important) or by selection from a choice of statements expressing a range of feelings about an item: (i.e: I hug trees for spiritual strength. Trees inspire and refresh my spirit. Trees produce the oxygen I breath. Trees give me wood and paper. Trees are nice, but things are cleaner without them. When you have seen one tree, you have seen them all.)


Respect for the environment

I have respect for nature
I understand the complexity of natural systems
I value the natural world as a source of personal fulfilment
I am aware of the interconnections between my actions and the environment
I understand the connectedness between my religion and the environment
I join others in celebrating the environment and the community of life
I help others to understand the way nature is organized in systems and cycles
I share with others how to protect and restore the natural environment
I take actions to respect and protect nature
I try to reduce my environmental impact and my contribution to environmental problems
I try to include more conscious pro-environmental behaviours in my personal lifestyle
I purchase environmentally sustainable products even if cheaper alternatives exist
I procure energy from renewable sources where possible
I prefer public transport
I reduce my carbon emissions
I reuse, reduce and recycle waste
I try to make my recreation, social activities and celebrations environmentally friendly
I try to have a positive effect on the natural environment
I contribute to organizations working for sustainability and environmental protection
I invest my time and resources in activities that benefit the environment or society
I take part in educational activities that empower me to contribute actively to sustainable development
I am ready to act for the environment without waiting for others to act


I have my place in the community/group
I am encouraged to fulfil my responsibilities
I am encouraged to grow personally and reach my potential
I see my work as a form of service
I am able to express my opinions
I feel that others respect me, as I respect them
I am given equal opportunity to participate in my community/group
I have knowledge, skills, networks, resources, traditions, etc. that I can contribute
I am encouraged to explore my own ideas and reflect on my own individuality
I am encouraged to develop my own vision and goals
I am encouraged to identify problems and deliver solutions
I can take risks, make mistakes and learn from my errors
I do not have to compromise my personal beliefs or values
I am always learning as I develop
I set myself performance goals
I am comfortable with a culture of change
There are people I can turn to when I need assistance or accompaniment
My contributions are appreciated and acknowledged
I feel that I am able to effect change

Appreciating unity in diversity

I enjoy working with people with different characteristics (gender, culture, age, personality, etc.)
I listen to and respect other people's points of view
I try to ensure that everyone is included
I replace a negative feeling towards someone by a stronger positive feeling
I do not discriminate on the basis of nationality, ethnic origin, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, creed or religion
I enjoy working with others in a group
I try to learn from others different from myself
My community is richer because of its diversity

Trustworthiness and integrity

I try to become conscious of my value system
I try to put my personal values into practice
I consider ethical principles when making decisions
I am honest and meet my obligations even when there is no chance of being caught
I follow through with my commitments
I try to practice what I preach; my actions are consistent with my words
I am transparent and truthful in my communications with others
I can be trusted with other peoples' money

Justice and solidarity

I identify what is right for myself and do not rely on the opinions of other
I do not backbite about others, or listen to others backbiting
I take into account the needs of future generations
I try to help those less well-off than myself
I can identify the ethical values applicable in a given context
I treat others with equity and fairness
I work to address social problems or global issues
I give voluntarily to support social causes
I prefer fair trade products
I pay all my taxes


I am content with what I have materially
I only buy what I really need
I consider the social and environmental impact before I buy something
I generally use something until it wears out
I appreciate the good things of life in moderation
I place no importance on status symbols
I do not judge people by their clothes or possessions, nor do I like to be so judged
I prefer to invest in social relationships rather than material goods
I feel that material things are only a distraction from what is really important in life
I believe that wealth can be a barrier to spiritual development

Together, the set of indicators covering the six dimensions, given equal weighting in the absence of any basis for ranking, would comprise the Ethical Sustainability Footprint, showing how well the individual's values lead along the path towards sustainability.


Adaptations would be required to allow for different cultures and levels of development. The ESDinds project found that behaviours associated with values were more universal than the vocabularies used to describe values in different groups. The words used to describe the Ethical Sustainability Footprint may need to be modified to reflect what is most meaningful to the individual or group concerned, but the indicators should be reasonably consistent.

Equally important is to ensure that the indicators reflect the different trajectories towards a sustainable lifestyle for a wealthy suburbanite or a poor rural villager, with the former needing to reduce consumption and the latter need to increase it in responsible and sustainable ways. Whether this can be done with convergent dimensions of a single set of indicators, or will require separate footprint methodologies, will require further work.

By emphasizing actions more than declarations of belief or intentions, it should be possible to compensate for the difficulties of self-assessment. The format of the questions can also be adjusted to draw out more objective answers, but the resulting questionnaire will be more complicated and could require outside evaluation, unless an on-line system does the analysis automatically, as with on-line ecological footprint calculators.


This conceptual note aims to demonstrate the potential in the development of an Ethical Sustainability Footprint index. Such an approach would help individuals to become more conscious of their values, to identify possible contradictory attitudes, and to ensure consistency in their efforts to live more sustainably.


BIC. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Bahá'í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, 3 May 2010.

Burford, Gemma, Elona Hoover, Georgia Piggot, Dimity Podger and Marie K. Harder (this session). Making the invisible visible: values-based indicators as a novel tool for identifying and bridging value-action gaps.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2008. The ethical challenges of global change as a motivator for consumer citizenship, p. 21-32. In Alexandra Klein and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Assessing Information as Consumer Citizens. Consumer Citizenship: Promoting New Responses, Vol. 4. Hedmark College, Hamar, Norway, Consumer Citizenship Network. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship Network, Tallinn, Estonia, 5-6 May 2008.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2012. Achievements and gaps in indicators for sustainability. Ecological Indicators, vol. 17, p. 14-19. June 2012.

Harder, Marie K., Elona Hoover, Gemma Burford, Georgia Piggot, Dimity Podger, Ismael Velasco, Tomas Hak, Svatava Janouskova and Martin Zahradnik (this session). Monitoring and evaluating values-related processes and outcomes in civil society organisations.

Podger, Dimity, Georgia Piggot, Martin Zahradnik, Svatava Janouskova, Ismael Velasco, Tomas Hak, Arthur Dahl, Alicia Jimenez and Marie K. Harder. 2010. The Earth Charter and the ESDinds Initiative: Developing Indicators and Assessment Tools for Civil Society Organizations to Examine the Value and Dimensions of Sustainability Projects. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4(2):297-305.

UN Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future.

Sources for Ecological Footprint:;;

Last updated 28 March 2012