Changing behaviours, transforming society

21 May 2020

With the search for a COVID vaccine still ongoing to enable a safe way out of the pandemic, the debate about what comes after COVID is currently in full swing. The rapid adjustment that has taken place in people's behaviour worldwide is taken by many as evidence that the transformation to a more just and sustainable society is now just around the corner.

Surely, by disrupting the normality of everyday lives the pandemic has created positive sustainability effects: the air we breathe is is cleaner, emissions of GHG emissions have dropped dramatically, and social capital is increasing as a result of community responses to deal with the consequences of lockdown. As a result, governments are now seeking to retain these behavioural changes, nudging us towards sustainability. If it only were that simple...

Based on existing evidence, researchers at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester have developed a report that addresses this question. The report covers changed practices in a range of sectors, including food provision, mobility, shopping, hygiene and thrift. The report then links these changes to evidence from previous crises and disruptions to assess the likelihood that changed practices will accelerate the transition to a more sustainable society. In summary, it discusses the three steps that must be taken to ensure these changes actually are retained, and bring a more sustainable future for all.

First, it is important to acknowledge that with the positive environmental impacts, behavioural changes to some extent enlarge the negative impacts of our behaviours. Increased online shopping and food deliveries cause a rise in packaging waste, and all household members living in a small space for an extended period of time have raised levels of domestic abuse significantly. We would not want to retain those negative impacts, and we will have to actively seek to avoid them.

Secondly, disrupted practices have a tendency to 'bounce back'. My favourite example in the UK is pub visits: while currently not allowed, no one considers it likely that UK citizens will continue to abstain from visiting the pub once the lockdown is eased. There are specific conditions which help prevent such bouncing back: change in actual infrastructure and availability of resources is key. For example, people buying fitness equipment to be used at home have a viable alternative to the gym after it opens again. Changed preferences and collective awareness, as well as modified rules and norms, are other conditions that help prevent a bounce back to previously normal behaviours. The second step is thus to help create and maintain the conditions that keep favourable practices in place. To some extent this can be done at the individual level; in many cases (think about retaining the use of bicycles for commuting) it requires infrastructural changes and investment that have a public character.

Thirdly, a more sustainable society is more than a collection of practices performed by individual citizens. As the condition of favourable infrastructure indicates, it requires much beyond that. In addition to supply chains that deliver an affordable supply of the products and services needed, governments will need to actively choose and invest in sustainable forms of provision, and choose wisely when supporting existing businesses. This is why the EU Green Deal, and similar initiatives around the world, are of key importance: without them, the responsibility for a sustainable society is unloaded on the shoulders of individual citizens and consumers, and that is not where it belongs.

Frank Boons, Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester (May 2020)

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