From smoking to seatbelts: why behaviour change is possible


When you’re in the throes of trying to drive sustainable change, it can feel like a hopeless cause. Anthony Probert explains why a ten-minute talk this week made him feel more positive about creating sustainable lifestyles

Yesterday afternoon I was at ‘Sustainable Lifestyles, Livelihoods and Circular Economy’ conference at the University of Sussex. One 10-minute presentation by Giana Eckhardt of Royal Holloway really got me thinking and I thought that other people might find a recap useful. (Her book The Myth of the Ethical Consumer also illustrates where she is coming from).

Her talk was about how to achieve behaviour change at a large scale. She began by outlining how attempting to educate the individual will not lead to mass change. The success rate is too small, and it can actually turn people off. People’s behaviour is dictated by social norms and values, so you have to take a collective approach and aim to alter how people act as a society. She gave three ways to do this:

Authoritative intervention: This is the obvious one. One example is the way that recycling took hold in the US because the government would fine people for not recycling. They described it as a form of civic duty and citizenship and didn’t make it about the environment. The vast majority of people now recycle in the States, even though many might not even ‘believe’ in climate change.

Alternative hedonism: Sustainable lifestyles are seen as frugal and disappointing, the opposite of having a ‘good time’. People regularly like to spoil themselves. So, you find ways to make sustainability hedonistic.

One example is with dietary habits which Giana illustrated with another story from the US. A lot of people eat crisps and use vending machines, so one company put baby carrots in crisp packets in vending machines and in the sweet aisle in supermarkets. In weeks, the number of people purchasing carrots increased significantly. They made carrots cool.

Invert expectations: Make the status quo unappealing, boring and staid. The anti-tobacco movement found a lot of joy with this. Teenagers start smoking as it is rebellious, so they tried to make not smoking an act of rebellion. They started talking about ‘Big Tobacco’ as the enemy, portraying them as statist, elitist, grey-suits, part of the patriarchy. I don’t know how ethical this is, but they actually tapped into the Black Lives Matter campaign to associate ‘Big Tobacco’ with the police state.

As someone who works to champion sustainable lifestyles, I find this stuff really interesting. It chimes with Bioregional’s efforts to make sustainability more mainstream – or make the mainstream more sustainable as our co-founder Pooran Desai puts it.

And there are real-life successes with these tactics, especially in the automotive industry – for example, in a few short years, drink driving became almost totally taboo, and almost overnight people started wearing seatbelts.  By learning from the methods used to create positive change – and trying out new ones – we can create a happier, healthier future!

Learn more about One Planet Living, our intuitive framework designed to help individuals, communities and companies create more sustainable lifestyles.

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