Many late-night discussions and debates with friends and colleagues trying to understand why I struggle so much with this term, has led to the realisation that I’m not alone with this question “behaviour change – to do or not to do?”.
“Who are you to tell me what to do!!!” echoes in my ears, words of frustration from many in society and now my body cringes every time I hear the term “Behaviour Change”. This term does not sit right with me and often I feel uncomfortable using it. Yet I’m immersed in the field of climate action; individual, community, societal and political where this type of language is the norm and has a role in encouraging positive action. The conflict within me is that on one hand I wholeheartedly agree that for a climate just transformation in everyone from across all walks of society must be engaged, everyone doing their bit, yet individual behaviour change can come across as condescending and patronising leading to divisive narratives.
I’ll start with an explanation of behaviour change in relation to climate change before I move on to the areas where I see this concept as challenging and indeed problematic and finally, I’ll discuss what an alternative framing of “socially fair actions” could be and the context in which this would be useful.
We’re living in testing times, having just come out of a global pandemic, global conflicts and tensions are increasing and here at home in the UK we are now facing a cost-of-living crisis, many of us with housing, food and energy becoming unaffordable. All these worries sit in the backdrop of the climate crisis. Year-on-year record-breaking weather is being reported, the wettest month, the hottest month and extreme storms, flooding, forest fires and landslides, as a result of global warming and climate change. Climate Scientists have unequivocally evidenced the climate crisis has been accelerated by human activity since the Industrial Revolution.
Therefore, addressing climate change requires profound action and behaviour change has consistently been highlighted by policymakers as an essential if not the most critical component for climate action. An understanding of everyday behaviours by behavioural scientists has been brought in to design effective climate policies. Our decisions are constantly shaped by subtle changes in our environment. Even choices that feel deliberate and conscious can be swayed by cues that we may not even notice, such as social norms or the setting of a default option and this ability to manipulate certain drivers for change is known as behaviour change.
Behaviour change however is often narrowly conceived as individual-level consumer action, and the messaging sent out is of a “top down” nature coming from decision makers. Examples of these individual-level behaviours focus on low-carbon lifestyles such as active transport i.e., cycling rather than driving, avoiding flying, or changing diets i.e., replacing meat dishes to plant-based dishes, and reducing dairy products. Other areas of change can be seen in the adoption of low carbon measures such as installing solar panels or heat pumps or purchasing electric vehicles. Many behavioural change models exist to explain and predict mitigation (reduction of carbon emissions) more so than adaptation (adjusting to the current and future effects of climate change) behaviours.
As mentioned earlier, I’ve heard too often people reacting with “Who are you to tell me what to do!!!” when behaviour change is brought up. This reaction comes from a place of indignation, a feeling of being told what to do, and how to live your life by somebody else’s standards. Behaviour change’s starting premise is that the way one has been living is wrong and now you are being told how to live it correctly. I am sure that this is not the attention of behaviour change advocates, yet from my experience of working with marginalised and underrepresented groups, this is the way it has been perceived. “We’re being told what to do, we’re being educated without anyone taking the time to find out what we know and what we care about” is the sentiment from individuals from these communities. For example, individuals are targeted to reduce household food waste as food waste is one of the top climate issues, yet it can be confusing to know what or who is the biggest contributor to food waste and carbon emissions.
The information collated by organisations such as Zero Waste and WRAP shows that on average household food waste (unused food) is £420 every year. Supermarkets produce huge amounts of excess food waste and over the last few years, a number of initiatives such as redistribution of excess food (out of date) to charities and food banks have been implemented to reduce this waste. Yet in other parts of the food supply chain from farming, harvesting, production, manufacturing and transporting the vast amounts of food loss are not highlighted to the general public and let’s not forget the mountains of food waste which is seen as collateral damage to influence global trade and market price control. As individuals, we can’t control or minimise any of this loss hence why we may be kept in the dark, if you can’t do anything about it why get involved?
The argument then is that if we all do our little bit that is the approx. 70 million of us in the UK then those actions all add up, the accumulative effect will have a substantial impact, so we don’t have to do everything, we don’t need to be concerned about anything else. We as individuals focus on minimising household food waste, we do the recycling, we cycle to work, and we use less electricity, and these actions will lead to a reduction in carbon emissions moving the country closer to its net-zero targets. Then who is tackling the bigger issues?
One of the obvious challenges of behaviour change is that it is a messaging tool to support or demand climate change measures which are driven by the most current political agenda, and political action and this can lead to inconsistencies in the messaging from the language, the terminology used ie Net Zero, Just Transition, Low carbon etc. and also the purpose i.e. the baseline targets are moved year on year. These inconsistencies lead to confusion and mistrust and within this confusion, it becomes difficult to hold governments, policymakers and corporations to account and therefore the emphasis is back on individual behaviour change. Distraction from the bigger agenda, taking away responsibility from government and corporations. No one is holding them to account, no questioning no challenging.
Going back to the example of food waste even if each individual was to reduce their food waste, which of course I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be doing, it still doesn’t even scratch the surface of the emissions from the rest of the food production system. I remember speaking to someone who worked in a food packaging plant, and she told me that her household food waste was nothing in comparison to what she was witnessing in her place of work. She recoiled as she told me that even if a packaged food item fell on the floor (which was sanitised) that item was immediately binned, not cleaned, not given to staff, or given away but put in the waste garbage bin. This is one incident in one factory so imagine the number of incidents across 100s of factories around the UK never mind the world. So as an individual exposed to seeing this bigger picture then doing her bit to minimise food waste becomes trivial and inconsequential in comparison. All in society including the big companies must be working towards the same goals.
An additional challenge regarding ‘Behaviour Change’ which I’ve experienced from working with different diverse communities across the UK is that behaviour change narratives tend to be blanket statements. What I mean by that is there are assumptions everyone is acting in the same way i.e., producing the same amount of carbon and then has the same ability to make changes in their lifestyle to produce less carbon. Blanket behaviour change statements don’t always sit right and resonate at the same level with everyone. We need to take into account the different needs of the various communities in society depending on different factors such as level of income, employment, housing, geographical location, gender, disability, faith, and culture to name a few and of course, there’s the intersectionality of these social axes which further highlights the complexity of individual behaviour change.
An example of a blanket behaviour change is food portion sizes. I remember being told by government bodies what the correct rice portion size should be to minimise food waste. There’s an assumption firstly that the ratio of rice to the protein part of the meal i.e., let’s say curry in this scenario is the same. In South Asian households the rice is not served as a side it is the base on which the curry is eaten, therefore the ratio of rice to curry is higher. So, imagine trying to tell these communities to eat their rice differently it would be very patronising and inconsiderate of their cultural diet.
Secondly, everyone that throws away unused rice, that it’s not reheated the next day or indeed that it could be reused to create another dish. The government food guidelines is that rice should not be reheated and eaten as it contains harmful bacteria leading to food poisoning. However, there are many cultures that would be horrified at the notion of throwing away ‘good food’, food that has not gone off. This stems from one’s faith, culture or from experience of food scarcity.
Another example of a blanket statement would be to eat local produce. In most cases having access to locally grown locally produced food is limited and comes at a cost. For some, this usually means going to farmer’s markets which tend to be in affluent areas as they are the ones who can afford the higher prices. For others especially if you are looking for a more diverse range of fruit and veg to meet the needs of your culture farmer’s markets can be limiting. Unless we rethink and recapture what local produce looks like, and how accessible and affordable it is, the behaviour change messaging will not sit right with many and will be ignored. So, the messaging only becomes significant and appropriate to a certain echelon in society.
We live in an inequitable society and Climate Change is yet another crisis which highlights the stark inequalities in our society, as did Covid and the lockdown. We must address these social inequalities and not cause further divides by using inappropriate behaviour change messaging. There is an underlying assumption people have equitable agency to change or indeed a need to change.
Behaviour change can be problematic if we see it as manipulating consumer action relevant to climate action whereas if we were to consider a shift towards being conscious consumers rather than passive consumers this then enables individual agency and takes into account an individual’s circumstances and starting point.
However, without accessible and affordable low-carbon and climate-resilient alternatives it is impossible to make the choices which we would rather be making i.e., being the conscious consumer. More so we must also remember that we are more than just consumers, our roles in society can be more appropriately understood as extending across the many contexts we in society occupy as members of communities, participants in organisations, and as citizens who can influence policies.
Therefore, in establishing meaningful change we cannot be limited to reductive, individualistic behaviour change. This path leads to a focus on suboptimal intervention strategies without recognising the multiple drivers, barriers and situational and cultural context of behaviour. And on that note, I’ll leave you to decide Behaviour Change; To do or not to do?