We are never going to "solve" the sustainability problem. We might, however, create a society in which governments, organisations and individuals take pride in their efforts to protect the planet and each other.

This is the society I'd like to live in: one in which our genius for innovation and co-operation is applied first and foremost to human and ecological flourishing. To this end, there are three psychological principles that can help you nurture an orientation towards sustainability in your organisation.

The first is that people are great copiers. Fascinating new research on the brain and behaviour shows that a lot of copying happens without conscious awareness. We might know what we are doing but we don't always know why we are doing it.

On the downside, this means that we copy each other by jumping in our cars, buying the latest cellphone and sending our food scraps to landfills. Because everyone is doing it, it seems like the obvious thing to do. However, our desire to imitate others also means that if someone starts acting sustainably, others are likely to follow, particularly if the person acting is admired. This stresses the importance of acting sustainably, not just for its direct effect on the environment but also because you can have a ripple effect on those around you.

If you'd like members of your organisation to behave sustainably (say by taking the bus), doing it yourself may be the most powerful incentive you can offer.

The second principle is that positive emotions induce creativity. Many environmental movements have attempted to persuade people to take sustainability seriously through frightening forecasts of a bleak future. However, psychological studies have demonstrated that individuals who are uplifted by humour, praise or a small gift produce many more ideas and work better together.

This effect is dramatic, and is thought to be due to an evolved tendency for people to narrow their focus when they feel bad so they can concentrate on eliminating a threat, but to broaden their focus if they feel good. While environmental destruction is a threat, if you want people in your organisation to come up with creative solutions for how you can contribute to a better future, then don't scare them - make them feel good instead.

Finally, people want the chance to contribute to a positive social enterprise. Many philosophers, scientists and economists used to think that people were inherently selfish, but it has been shown that in the right circumstances most people are highly co-operative. We are deeply concerned with maintaining our reputations as good citizens.

At the moment, our society hasn't equated sustainable practice and innovation with good citizenship (to a significant extent) but it is a vision we can work towards. Organisations are particularly well placed to contribute to this new orientation. If you draw attention to sustainable thinking and action in your organisation with the message, "These people are contributing to the welfare of us all", those leading the way will glow with pride.

Others will respect and seek to emulate them and we really might be able to create a better world.

Niki Harre is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Auckland.