Demystifying Sustainability Behaviors on College and University Campuses: A Mixed Methods Analysis

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Publication Release Date: May 1, 2019
Date Posted: May 17, 2019
Submitted by: Sean Vormwald
Content Type: Publications
Type: Graduate Student Research


In response to the growing threat posed by climate change, colleges and universities are implementing interventions to engage students and employees with achieving sustainability and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. The three studies comprising this research provide insight into behavior change intervention strategies in climate action plans, the relationship between organizational climate for sustainability and sustainability behaviors, and the connection between campus engagement activities and operational sustainability performance.

The first study utilized content analysis methodology to examine college and university climate action plans to determine whether they include behavior change intervention strategies. The study found that education was the most commonly present intervention strategy, despite criticism from scholars that educational interventions are not effective at changing behaviors. Some behavioral categories such as commuting, energy, waste minimization, and general sustainability behaviors were more commonly targeted by intervention strategies compared to business travel, water conservation, and food choice behaviors, which were less commonly targeted. Informational and structural interventions were often used to target sustainability behaviors, although social interventions were uncommon.

The second study integrated organizational climate for sustainability into the theory of planned behavior, examining the relationship between constructs utilizing a survey of students and employees at six colleges and universities. The results suggest that the theory of planned behavior is useful for explaining campus sustainability behaviors, with the relationships between constructs being relatively consistent across campuses and the model accounting for a large percentage of variance in sustainability behaviors. The results confirm that the relationship between organizational climate and behavioral intentions is mediated by attitudes, social norms, and perceived behavioral control, and suggest that interventions targeting these determinants may be effective for changing behavior.

The third study utilized data from the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System to examine the relationship between a campus's organizational climate for sustainability interventions and their operational sustainability performance, finding a positive relationship while controlling for institutional characteristics. The results suggest that a campus's efforts to engage the campus community with sustainability are strongly related to their performance in areas related to greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, commuting, waste minimization, sustainable food purchasing, and water use.