The case studies reveal many barriers and enablers for using life cycle information, which were grouped into four areas: information, recommendation, social context, and familiarity. For information, the results support previous research that the link between life cycle information and decision-making is important—i.e. information needs to be relevant. We also found methodological adjustments and tailoring to specific industries or applications as enablers for life cycle information to induce action, especially among the LCA/environmental specialists interviewed. In the same vein, examples of simplified tools and methods geared towards self-supported life cycle investigation (e.g. for product developers) increased use of life cycle information beyond environmental departments. Moreover, several interviewees noted that it was difficult to handle uncertainties associated with evaluating life cycle assessment results and to compare these uncertainties with the financial consequences. All the above confirm previous research that suggests organisations are more likely to act if the right information is delivered in the right format.
Providing a recommendation
Even when relevant information was provided, interviewees repeatedly expressed a need for additional guidance regarding how to act on the information given, including how to handle trade-offs when aspects such as life cycle information and economic goals do not align. Providing recommendations on how to act in addition to providing life cycle information is in line with what social psychology suggests is needed for behavioural change: the probability of achieving a change in behaviour increases when information (e.g. environmental information) is provided together with a description of the preferred behaviour (i.e. how something should be done) (Schultz 2014). Additionally, when information about what others do is added (provided that ‘others’ act in line with the desired behaviour), the probability of changing behaviour increases even further (Gifford and Nilsson 2014; Schultz 2014). These results emphasise the importance of providing clear recommendations in the interpretation phase, complimented by a benchmark whenever possible. However, it also points to a need to act beyond the LCA study and to assist in translating the conclusion of the LCA study into a preferred action in the given situation. An LCA practitioner at one of the participating companies summarised the new approach after participating in the project as follows: ‘Before, I provided information; now I give recommendations’ (Isabelle, 49, LCA practitioner).
The importance of context
To this end, this study suggests that some of the barriers for acting on life cycle information could be overcome by providing recommendations in addition to information about environmental aspects (Schultz 2014). However, in the case studies, we also found barriers and enablers related to when and to whom information was provided, how recommended action was enhanced, and what practices resulted from familiarity or social context. The results of this study point to a wide range of enablers and barriers linked to the context of the person receiving information, over and above the information itself, such as the time at which information was provided, personal beliefs about the profession, incentive structures, and heuristics. Many examples were found where there was an intention to act on the life cycle information provided, but a shift in behaviour still did not happen. From a behavioural study perspective, this result is not surprising. Human behaviour is complex, and discrepancies between individuals’ intentions and actions are not uncommon (Schultz 2014; Gilovich et al. 2002).
There are several cognitive objectives (such as values, beliefs, and norms) that prompt a person’s biases towards not acting as expected on life cycle information (Stern et al. 1999; Gilovich et al. 2002; Gifford 2011). Cognitive objectives can be activated or trigged by different contexts due to internal signals (e.g. stress that activates the goal of being on time) or exterior signals (e.g. behaviour of others activates the goal of being on time). Most often fulfilling cognitive objectives is a combination of both internal and external signals. Clearly, behaviour is steered by multiple factors. We found that what was seen as an impassable barrier in one context was seen a minor issue in another context, even within the same target group. For example, there was an inconsistent reaction to how the inclusion of life cycle information would jeopardise a deadline. For some respondents, this concern was a major barrier to action, but as conditions changed (e.g. through gamification enhancing the preferred behaviour), it became less important. How can we then find guidance on what is needed to increase the impact of life cycle information? To find explanations to these situations, we turned to the field of social psychology. Social psychology examines how different personal and contextual factors influence the way people act. Goal framing theory is one framework that aims to understand the plausible motivational strategies applied by individuals in situations where environmental information is provided (Lindenberg and Steg 2007).
Goal framing theory
The central idea in goal framing theory is that goals (i.e. mental representations of desired future states) govern or ‘frame’ what people pay attention to and what knowledge and attitudes are activated (Lindenberg and Steg 2007). Hence, goals can act as personal triggers and steer how people evaluate various aspects of a situation and what alternatives are considered. There are two personal goals—the hedonic goal (‘to feel better right now’) and the gain goal (‘to guard and improve one’s resources’)—and one social goal—the normative goal (‘to act appropriately’). The goal that receives cognitive attention governs or ‘frames’ how the situation is experienced and what alternatives are considered and evaluated, while other goals are pushed into the cognitive background (Lindenberg and Steg 2007). The goal that receives cognitive attention is called the goal frame.
A hedonic goal frame is activated when individuals focus on their feelings. Barriers and benefits are typically short term and characterised by avoiding effort or uncertainty. For example, focusing on gaining immediate efficiency usually results in status quo bias. However, if individuals attend to their personal resources, a gain goal frame is activated. Barriers and benefits relate to a medium- or long-term time horizon. The goals activated normally focus on an improvement in (or preventing a decrease in) one’s (often financial) resources. In an organisational context, this may relate to an individual’s focus on doing a good job (according to what is being measured), to get a pay raise, or to reach the threshold for a bonus. The normative goal frame is activated when the focus is on appropriateness and people are especially sensitive to what they think one ought to do in order to maintain social relations (inside and outside the company).
When people want to act appropriately but do not know how or do not know at what cost (e.g. where there is a conflict between financial or ecological benefits), it is likely that personal goals, either gain goal or hedonic goal, will replace the normative goal frame. Consequently, they give up and go with more selfish motives (Lindenberg and Steg 2007). Motivations are rarely homogenous. Individual agency, or the capacity of individuals to act independently, in combination with local contexts within the company, may therefore trigger different goal framings along the same delegation line. This situation may result in discrepancies between the company’s ambition to have a life cycle perspective and the decisions and actions taken in the daily work by individuals in the organisation. These discrepancies may explain some of our observations concerning various enablers and barriers for life cycle action.
Applying goal framing theory on case findings
By reviewing the enablers and barriers found in the cases in relation to the three types of goals in goal framing theory, we find that most barriers and enablers could be sorted into this framework. That is, the existence of company visions and goals with a life cycle perspective is an enabler in a normative goal frame, while lack of guidance on how to handle trade-offs between economic and environmental goals is a barrier related to a gain goal. The availability of complementary data needed for a decision eases the situation in a hedonic goal frame, whereas the need to include new data takes time and poses a barrier to immediate efficiency. Figure 2 provides some examples of barriers and enablers associated with each framing.
A review of the case studies made in relation to goal framing theory supports the notion that barriers of a more practical nature often result in inaction and hedonic goal frames of the situation. For example, difficulties including life cycle information in the existing (IT) software and too short a time frame for including life cycle information in the decision-making process resulted in status quo behaviour. Including new types of information (e.g. life cycle information) may result in a more complex decision-making process, and the lack of guidance or additional information might jeopardise meeting deadlines. To avoid this risk, recipients are not given new types of information.
Many of the barriers identified in our study prompt a personal goal perspective (i.e. hedonic or a gain goal) among the individuals receiving life cycle information. For example, if it is uncertain which decision to take (e.g. which is the environmentally preferred alternative), hedonic goals tend to frame the decision as it is the safest and simplest strategy to stay with the status quo. Uncertainty regarding the quality of the information also provided prompts, habits, or heuristic biases towards previously used information. Uncertainties regarding the impact on key performance indicators, such as the ability to achieve economic goals, nudge the situation towards a gain goal framing. For example, if recommendations are lacking on how to handle trade-offs between ecological and economic aspects, economics arguments are normally perceived as the strongest factor in the evaluation of success or bonuses.
Notably, many enablers for life cycle thinking found in our case studies were associated with normative goals, such as acting ‘appropriately’ according to company values or because one puts pride in their profession. Typically, this was expressed by our interviewees as ‘the right thing to do’ (Stefan, 62, research and development engineer) or ‘be in accordance to the company’s environmental profile’ (Charles, 55, Purchasing manager). These kinds of arguments were prominent as explanations of why life cycle information was perceived as very important to consider at a general level. In the situation of a specific action, however, the decisions at hand were often framed by hedonic or gain goals, resulting in barriers often exceeding enablers.
Following from the above, one hypothesis arising from the study is that organisations have been mostly successful in (or so far mostly focused on) creating logics and enablers related to normative goals. Although normative goals cannot guarantee to frame every situation, enablers related to gain goals and hedonic goals need further exploration. This study suggests that life cycle information will have greater impact on behaviour change if strategic (normative) arguments of life cycle thinking are supplemented with context-adapted enablers that relate to personal goals.