The frequency of the term “sustainability” in literature and corporate discourse has increased substantially over the past 30 years. It is at the forefront of societal stability and is now pretty much unavoidable; with the pressure for a global eco-transformation reaching its peak, it’s clear why. But these days, with popularity comes a seemingly infinite pool of information, from which somehow we are supposed to identify the right data, the right opinions, the right advice. And with increasing pressure for societal change comes the expectation that – as individuals – we will drive this change.
We know that modifying behaviour is more than just swamping people with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. This has been demonstrated across fields, from corporate greenwashing (Grolleau et al., 2015), environmental citizenship (Wolf, 2011) and moral psychology (Haidt, 2012) to our very own Innovate UK research project, focussing on behavioural change and technology adoption in the LegalTech sector. If you want to change behaviour, you need to facilitate and motivate, not just inform.
So how can we bridge the gap between creating sustainable habits on an individual level and the resources we have on offer to help us do this? From my own personal and academic experience, I’ve found a few ways of engaging with sustainability which have developed my environmental values and inspired long-term lifestyle changes which are better for the planet:
Tip 1: Get immersed in the natural world.
The more of a relationship you have with nature, the easier the lifestyle changes that harmonise with it will be to implement.
The main issue with an increasingly chaotic climate is that we rely on the natural world and its delicate interactions for basically everything. Without balance, these systems won’t persist, and that’s a big issue for us.
But besides this, just being within a natural space can provide us with a lot of other benefits; improved mental wellbeing, better relationship-building and conflict reduction – to name a few (Stuart-Smith, 2020). So if you need to give someone bad news, a trip to the park comes highly recommended. When you physically engage with the natural world – literally “get your hands dirty” – these benefits are only enhanced. For example, community gardening projects can both develop relationships between members as well as members and their homegrown veg (Lovel et al., 2014). Investment in your own portion of nature has knock-on effects; it can allow eco-friendly values to flourish and other sustainable habits, like reducing your meat consumption, intuitively easier to implement.
Tip 2: Quality over quantity
If you’re looking to instil positive long-term habits, focus your attention on a few resources which will allow you to do so.
The more you switch your attention, the more energy you consume per activity and the less effectively you engage with that activity. This is why productivity tips tend to lean towards isolated focus time on specific tasks; because switching between them is inefficient. The same principle can be applied to how we interact with information on sustainability. Sustainability is a huge concept (involving every natural and anthropic system on our planet), and if you’re jumping between endless topics, struggling to piece together a coherent picture of everything you need to be aware of to make the right changes, you probably won’t get very far – at least, not in the long-term.
Find a topic and stick to it. For example, if you want to reduce your meat consumption (because you’ve heard this is something that’s bad for the planet), but want to know the best way of doing so and which meats to reduce, focus on one meat you eat a lot of, put aside some time and get learning. Don’t look into the entirety of the meat and dairy industry and its impacts on the global south, emissions, animal welfare, dietary health etc. Narrow your focus, then make a decision (even if you’re not 100% sure it’s the best option) and stick with it for a while. When you’ve mastered this, you can try to expand your repertoire – perhaps to other types of meats, or a different topic entirely, like unsustainable clothing brands. Whatever you’re looking into, make sure you do so in a way that means you actually absorb the information you’re engaging with.
Tip 3: Expect the process to be slow
Sustainability is slow; you should be too. Try to do a few things well, and have patience with yourself in the process.
In my opinion, one of the trickiest parts of sustainable living is the dissonance between it and most modern day habits. Due to the advancement of technology and social media, our brains are becoming increasingly associated with instant gratification mechanisms for reward, making it more difficult to set and be motivated by long-term goals. But the point of sustainable behaviour is just that; it’s sustainable, meaning it persists, despite changes to context over time.
There are as many resources out there on habit-building as sustainability, but they all hammer home the same points; start small, break goals down into manageable milestones, ensure changes are incremental, and get back on track when you veer off course. When it comes to sustainable living, these points are even more important, because the point of sustainable habits is that they aren’t oriented towards instant gratification. In fact, they’re the opposite; rather than getting that quick dopamine boost from buying a few tops on ASOS when you get the urge, you’re buying one top which you have to wait a couple of months to afford from a sustainable brand. If you want to create long-term sustainable habits, you need to slow it down, and accept they’re something you’ll develop over time.
Sustainability is complicated, and changing your behaviour to align with it is hard – though at this point in time, absolutely necessary. Whatever point you’re at in your sustainability journey, make it as easy for yourself as possible. Develop your relationship with the natural world – you’ll be more motivated to save it. Narrow your learning – you’ll find useful information easier to take in and apply to daily life. Accept slow living – it’s what sustainability is at its core. Best of luck!