Through our daily living practices, almost all of us contribute to global environmental change. For example, households in the UK emitted an average of 9.8 tons of CO2 equivalent in 2017 with heating, transportation and consumer diets being the behaviours creating the biggest impact. The global average annual carbon footprint of an individual is 4.35 tons, according to the World Economic Forum. In developed economies this is generally much higher; for instance, the average annual carbon footprint of a person in the US is 14.95 tons.
Whilst these last statistics include the activities and emissions of industry, micro-level individual behaviours and the resulting emissions undoubtedly also matter – globally, household consumption is estimated to account for almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions. But sustainability is not only about the environment, but helping society. In fact, communities in which pro-social behaviours (i.e. community participation, volunteering, giving) are not common, may experience lower levels of health, happiness and well-being, among others. Changing individual behaviours and encouraging the uptake of more sustainable practices is therefore imperative.
My research includes investigating the reasons driving individuals to engage in pro-social and sustainable behaviours, aiming to provide some insights that would allow us to encourage people to change their behaviour for good. In the past, I have researched sustainable lifestyles, with the aim of understanding what motivates individuals to live sustainably, and how their identity (who they are, what they value in life, their experiences) interplay with those motivations.
Interestingly, the results of my research suggest that this interplay influences not only the type of sustainable practices individuals engage with, but the commitment in relation to those practices and the levels of personal satisfaction people feel. Currently, I am working on a research project focused on sustainable fashion, looking at awareness and motivations to engage in this type of behaviour, but also barriers impeding more people to dress sustainably. The first part of the project consists of a qualitative, cross-cultural piece of research, conducted as part of Lucy Hurwood’s MSc dissertation. The second part of the research will be done quantitively, working together with my colleague from the JMCR, Dr Anastasiya Saraeva.
The overall purpose of the research we do is to contribute to achieving SDG number 12. By better understanding the socio-psychological reasons why (or why not) people engage in sustainable behaviours, we could offer tips to organisations and policy makers trying to encourage individuals to consume and behave sustainably. After all, and quoting Greta Thunberg, “everything needs to change, and it has to start today”. We hope that through our research we are doing ‘our bit’ in this much-needed transition towards more sustainable lives.
Irene Garnelo-Gomez is a Lecturer in Reputation and Sustainability at Henley Business School, and member of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation (JMCR).