Who are the greenest members of the EPFL community?

The research team sent a questionnaire out to the entire EPFL community (15,044 people) in the spring of 2018, framing it as a survey of consumption habits in general. © 2020 EPFL

The research team sent a questionnaire out to the entire EPFL community (15,044 people) in the spring of 2018, framing it as a survey of consumption habits in general. © 2020 EPFL

New study finds that women and administrative and technical staff have the most environmentally friendly behavior at our School.

Universities are the training ground for the next generation of managers and entrepreneurs – bright young individuals who, once they graduate, will develop technologies and tools for a more sustainable society. Scientists at EPFL’s Laboratory on Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS), in association with colleagues at ETH Zurich, have conducted a study to pinpoint what factors tend to make university staff and students more likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviors (PEB). Taking EPFL as an example, they developed a model to measure PEB based on objective factors like position (Bachelor’s, Master’s or PhD student, scientist, professor, or administrative or technical staff) and field of study, as well as a range of psychological factors.

The research team sent a questionnaire out to the entire EPFL community (15,044 people) in the spring of 2018, framing it as a survey of consumption habits in general. The questionnaire had 49 questions divided into three sections designed to assess pro-environmental behaviors, influential factors and structural, sociological and demographic aspects. A total of 1,864 people completed the questionnaire in full.

The scientists’ first finding was that women tend to be significantly more environmentally conscious than their male counterparts. “Previous studies had already made similar observations – women are more likely to purchase organic products, for example,” says Claudia R. Binder, the head of HERUS, Dean of ENAC, member of EPFL’s Energy and Sustainability Strategy Working Group, and a co-author of the study. A second, more surprising, finding was that administrative and technical staff generally show a higher level of PEB than EPFL employees in other positions. This could be due to the influence of the sustainability-oriented university environment. “For these individuals, the socialization effects at EPFL were larger determinants of PEB than the educational level as such,” says Binder. 

Excluding administrative and technical staff, there was a positive correlation between education and PEB as you go up the academic career – professors, postdocs and Master’s students, in that order, showed a greater tendency towards PEB than Bachelor’s students. Age was another influential factor found to have a positive correlation; we become more environmentally conscious as we get older, although this trend was slight. And, unsurprisingly, those who worked or studied in environmental- and sustainability-related fields showed a considerably higher level of PEB adoption than those in other fields.

Green in words and deeds 

“A main interest of our study, in addition to identifying differences in PEB among various EPFL sections and career levels, was to determine which psychological factors have an influence on positive environmental behaviors,” says Binder. In developing their model, her team combined structural and demographic data with psychological variables (green self-identity, willingness to sacrifice, perceived behavioral control, subjective norms, perceived effects and feeling good). The results showed that having a high green self-identity was the strongest predictor of PEB, followed by willingness to make sacrifices for the environment and, to a lesser extent, perceived control and subjective norms. People who view themselves as “green” say that’s reflected in their behavior, meaning their actions are consistent with their personalities. 

The scientists believe it would be interesting to conduct further studies on education and socialization effects (in professional environments) and on the specific situational constraints that students, scientists and staff face and that have an impact on PEB.

Drivers of action

For now, Binder hopes that “our findings will be used to inform measures to further promote sustainability and positive environmental behaviors at EPFL.” She adds: “These results indicate that efforts promoting the identification of students, scientists and staff with ‘green’ pro-environmental and pro-sustainability lifestyles are promising. Possible measures in this regard could involve environmental communication activities or campaigns involving activities and social practices consistent with green goals and ideals.”


“Determinants of pro-environmental behavior: A comparison of university students and staff from diverse faculties at a Swiss University, by Ralph Hansmann, Rafael Laurenti, Tarik Mehdi and Claudia R. Binder (2020). Journal of Cleaner Production, 121864.