Friday 28th October 2016                 Change text size:

Creating a sustainable future is about changing ‘habits’, not minds

Creating a sustainable future is about changing ‘habits’, not minds

Encouraging sustainable behaviours may not be a matter of rational persuasion. Guest author Barbara Axt attends a stimulating debate at the British Library in London.

The current strategy of providing information and incentives to people in the hope they will individually change their behaviours towards a more sustainable lifestyle is flawed, said researchers of the Sustainable Behaviours Research Groups, in an event held by the Economical and Social Research Council, ESRC. This Tuesday, during a debate at the British Library in London, they discussed better ways that policies could be used to create sustainable behaviours.

Changing the way society is organised and establishing new practices may be more effective than addressing individuals, according to Professor Dale Southerton, director of the Sustainable Practices Research Groups at the University of Manchester. Focusing on people at life changing moments, when they are moving houses or starting a family, can also see them more receptive to changing habits, said Ian Christie of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey. Both speakers emphasised that governments should embrace terms such as “social engineering,” and stop being apologetic about creating behaviour change.

Professor Southerton, the first speaker of the evening, started by questioning the idea that if you give people information and incentives, they’ll change their habits.”The idea of the sovereign individual, making individual choices based on rational arguments, and acting with complete free will, is flawed”, he said. “If we want to change behaviour we have to think how everyday practices are socially organised and structured”.

In 1970, only 3% of the houses in the UK had a freezer, he noted. In 1999, it was 96%. During this time, a whole industry has been created around the freezer, with frozen foods, convenience foods, and so on. Today, our lives are organised in a way that it is harder to buy fresh produce and cook fresh meals every day. “Considering that fridges and freezers are responsible for 25% of the UK domestic consumption of energy, not having a freezer would be a sustainable behaviour. However, it’s not easy for an individual to make this choice”, he noted. “Changing habits against social pressures is not easy. That’s why policies should focus on practices, not individuals”.

He also mentioned the ‘Cool Biz’ initiative in Japan, which since 2005 has been saving energy on summer by encouraging offices to set the air conditioning temperature on 28 degrees C while workers dress in short sleeved shirts, no suits or ties. Today, more than half the offices in Japan have joined Cool Biz. “But in the beginning, no one knew if people would accept it and change the way they dressed, or not”, he observed. “That is important about changing practices: people are unpredictable”.

His presentation was followed by writer and policymaker Ian Christie, who observed that behaviours are influenced by a combination of nine factors. These included the emotional estate of the person, who provides information, how other people are behaving, how good they feel about that behaviour and if there is any sub-conscious priming. “We rely too much on providing information to people and believing people are making economically rational decisions“, Christie said.

In an analysis of pro-environmental behaviour, “at least 80% of the factors influencing behaviour did not result from knowledge or awareness“, according to the Mindspace report, published in 2010 by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government. The report investigates the “more automatic or context-based drivers of behaviour, including the surrounding ‘choice environment’“.

Ian Christie mentioned that the people who are making an effort to change habits report satisfaction, but also tension – and that in lots of cases the habits and practices are too attached to people’s identities, like for example driving or eating meat. “In the US, people don’t want to be seen as green consumers, when their neighbours are not”, he added. “However, these are at least the ones trying to change habits. The ones we should worry most about are the ones who are not even concerned”. According to a 2011 research of Kantar Media, there are 22% of adults in Great Britain, who think “the effects of climate change are too far in the future to worry me“.

Another factor to have in mind is the idea of “moments of change” – those points of discontinuity in people’s lives, such as the start of a family, retirement or a house move – that work as windows of opportunity for behaviour change. This is when individuals reflect on their lifestyle and are more likely to change habits and behaviours related to energy use, travel and purchase of consumer goods.

Christie added that we can’t expect green technologies to solve the problem of unsustainable lifestyles, hence the importance of promoting behaviour change.

Both speakers commented on the reluctance by government and policy makers to address the issue openly. “There is difficulty in governments to accept they want to create behaviour change”, said Christie.

They struggle to say the word ‘regulation’, let alone ‘social engineering’“, commented Southerton. “Should governments legislate on habits? Yes, social engineering happens all the time,” he observed, adding that efforts to change habits are done regularly by private players, and that the government shouldn’t be apologetic about doing the same. “It is a neoliberal idea that climate change is a problem of sovereign individuals”.

Some habits that are easy to change – always recycling what you can rather than throwing it away, which 50% of households in Britain do.  Switching to renewable energy is another way of reducing the damage from turning on those lights and heaters on long cold dark winter nights.

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