Speaker 1: Lucy Kapoutsos, Health Content Editor at Bupa
Welcome to the Bupa Podcast. In this episode, we look at the psychology behind changing our behaviour to be kinder to the planet. How can we make environmentally friendly changes to our daily routines? And more importantly, how can we make these new habits stick? My name is Lucy and I'm a Health Content Editor here at Bupa.
Today, I'm joined by Bupa's lead behavioural insights expert Dr. Sarah Griffiths, who talks to us about why, despite warning about the environment, we'll often find it difficult to make sustainable changes to our daily routines. Sarah talks us through the psychology behind behaviour change from some ways to be successful in forming you habit. And we look at how small changes can make a big impact to the planet.
Hi, Sarah. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Speaker 2: Dr. Sarah Griffiths, Bupa’s lead behavioural insights expert
Hi, Lucy. It's great to talk to.
So firstly, I think it'd be a great place to start if we can, by talking about what sustainability actually is and sort of what we mean by when we say being more sustainable.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, sure. So sustainability is really about living in a way that limits use of the Earth's natural resources. It's kind of about taking responsibility for not only meeting our needs now, but also being considerate of the needs of people in the future. And we can look at sustainability as having three components. So they are environmental protection, economic growth, social development. And these components all overlap with one another.
But for true sustainability, we need an overlap in all three areas. So protecting the environment while also promoting social, economic growth and development. I've got this really good quote from the WWF, which was previously the World Wildlife Fund--"We only have one Earth and are utterly dependent on it for our survival and well-being".
So kind of in essence, we need to look after the world. And that means living and working in a way that protects the earth both now and for the future.
Yeah, I think that's a great definition. It's really interesting, actually, to sort of delve deeper into what we mean by true sustainability. I think we know from what you said that we can really see that it is more of a complex issue than it might appear to be on the surface.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, exactly. It's really complex and it's such a big issue and we can see climate change as a result of not working in a sustainable way. And it's largely due to human activity like deforestation and burning fossil fuels. We can already see the impact of this with nearly one quarter of the world's population living in countries which have experienced record high temperatures in recent years.
We've also seen increases in the number and intensity of flooding and increased bushfires due to drier and windier conditions.
So sustainability, concerns about the climate and the future of the planet have kind of forced us to rethink some of our lifestyle habits. And that's what's commonly referred to as being more sustainable. And so what I think we mean by this is reducing the impacts that we have on the environment.
And as individuals, we can do that by changing our behaviour, like buying appliances with high energy efficiency ratings, setting the heating thermostat to a lower temperature to reduce electric consumption. And we can also reduce the amount of meat in our diets to lower our carbon footprint. So living in a more sustainable way will improve not only the health of the planet, but also the health of the people living on it as well.
If you think we have less pollution and cleaner air, then we will have less respiratory illnesses like asthma. And it's something a lot of people worry about.
Recent UK survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 75% of people who are asked were concerned about the impact of climate change. So there is a lot of worry out there and that doesn't always transfer into positive action.
Yeah, thanks. And I think, as you say, it's really important to highlight that sustainability and climate change has an impact on a lot of people's health in terms of things like air quality for people with respiratory illness. So it's not just, you know, the wellbeing of the planet that's impacted. And so if we can shift the focus to look at sustainability through a behaviour change lens.
We all know don't we, the sorts of changes that we should be making. Why do you think these changes to our typical routines are so difficult to put in place? And why is it that we often tend to slip back to our old habits?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Well, I think that one of the problems is that we often have a view that it's all or nothing. And that can make us feel pressured into making really big changes that we just can't maintain or are unable to make in the first place. And also products that are associated with being kind of greener often cost more because they use environmentally friendly materials and processes, things that weren't really considered to be a priority until quite recently.
So getting an electric or hybrid car might be a great way to increase sustainability. With electric cars being better for the environment than vehicles with an internal combustion engine. But then for a lot of people they're just not as affordable. They're costing more than a traditional engine vehicle. And also there are issues with how many miles you can do before the battery needs charging and how long the battery takes to charge. So longer journeys would require more thought and more planning.
It's the same with things like getting solar panels on your house, so they could be great as a source of green energy. And so reducing your carbon footprint and they can save you money in the long run by reducing your energy bill. But they generally require upfront costs, which can be quite substantial. And so people are kind of just put off for making these big changes.
That's really true. And particularly the point about kind of having an all or nothing approach. And that's definitely something I'm guilty of. So about the sort of looking at small changes. What sorts of things can work against us here? Making small changes.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Okay. I think in terms of smaller changes, there are so many things that we could change that it can just be really hard to know where to start and what's likely to make the biggest impact. Do we start with reducing the amount of meat we eat? Look at making changes to the energy that we use or the way we travel. Reduce water usage or stop buying single use plastics. The list just go on and on. Really.
And what we know from behavioural science is that trying to change too much at once can make it even more difficult to sustain long term. And it's also hard to see the positive impacts of some of these changes. We're all so busy with our own lives, so trying to be more environmentally friendly can seem like such an effort, especially when the sustainable choice tends to be less convenient for us and involves more thought and more planning.
And also it can be hard to prioritise environmental issues as an individual, particularly when other issues feel more personal and urgent and take up our focus and attention.
And we can also see that issue in government and local leaders who may be faced with what look to be more immediate and pressing priorities. And so their delays in taking action for sustainability can really influence us as individuals as well.
And I guess if we look at the psychology behind behaviour change, something that's worth thinking about is the gap between our intentions and our behaviour. So as you mentioned, most of us know there's lots of changes that we should be making. But knowing and doing a two really quite different things so we can be full of the best intentions to change our actions. But when it comes to making a change, we fail again and again. And this can be really disheartening and can put us off trying to make any changes. So even small changes.
Just to explain really, I guess, why it's hard to make changes. I think it's helpful to look at the way our brains are wired and we can use this analogy and think of our brains as having two systems.
So system one is automatic and quick thinking, and it's behind 95% of the things that we do every day, largely without having to really think about them.
And then there's system two which is our conscious and reflective brain and this is unique to humans, and it's this second system that's responsible for our thoughts and how we weigh the pros and cons of things.
But the problem with system two, is it's slow and it takes more effort. And this is where habits come in.
But to repeat it in action over and over again, it then becomes a habit and this is triggered by system one. So the automatic processing in our brains and then it requires less effort.
And then when we think about habits for being more sustainable, we need to make positive changes turn into long lasting habits. Otherwise they can just feel like too much effort. And that's where we can slip up.
There may be some habits that we've picked up that aren't great for the environment, like throwing away rubbish or the things that can be recycled or reused, such as leaving the tap on while we brush our teeth. And it can be quite hard to undo or replace these behaviours with new ones if they're so ingrained in our automatic processing. And we kind of really have to think in order to change them.
And that's really interesting. And I think it sort of really explains why we do find it so difficult to make these sorts of changes and it really is a case of actually doing an action on behaviour again and again before we make the sort of connections needed to form something as a new habit.
So with that in mind, do you have any tips for forming new habits and behaviours and any sort of strategies to make these new routines easier to stick to?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, of course. So as we said, starting small is really important. And if you can find some things, so maybe just one thing that you think would be fairly easy to change and then try and fit into a daily routine without feeling too much of a burden. Maybe that could be reducing the length of your shower to save water or going meat free for a few days a week.
Or it could be a group of things like turning off any unnecessary lights and reducing your heating thermostat by one degree. And you can then build from small changes and increase the time or duration.
Going back to the shower example, so maybe your usual shower takes around 10 minutes and you want to reduce this to 5 minutes. But perhaps that's too much of a change to start with, considering all you need to do. So reducing to say 7 minutes might make it easier and then reducing further from there.
Yeah, maybe you could set a timer to help with that also. Do you think that would be helpful to kind of keep you on track and remind you to get out of the shower a little bit earlier?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, definitely. Prompts can be really helpful for this sort of activity until it's become a new habit and you no longer need to track and time it, and monitoring your activity can also be a great way to see progress when you're trying to make changes or even keeping you aware of when you're ready to expand the behaviour or introduce a new one.
And you can always reward yourself for reaching mini goals. So particularly for behaviour that we might think doesn't directly impact us or where the benefits are less clear and visible.
And planning is really good as well. So perhaps you want to eat less meat, but you know it will be very hard as the family likes to eat meat. And so you plan to have maybe one meat free night a week and you might have heard of meat free Mondays. And as you get used to that, you could increase to Wednesdays as well and so on.
Planning meals in advance. And having a shopping list can stop you buying too much food that you'll end up shopping when it goes bad.
And it can really help with having meat free nights as you'll know what you'll be eating on those nights and have the ingredients in ready.
And also try to think ahead to what kind of kinds of barriers might get in the way of you carrying out the behaviour and how you could get around those.
So maybe you have a busy week coming up. And you know there are some evenings where you just have less time after work to sort out dinner - pre-preparing meals or batch cooking something that you can freeze and eat later can be great to keep you on track in those kinds of times.
Yeah, that's a great idea and it's great to have some practical tips like these to kind of set new behaviours in motion. And do you think it's helpful to involve your family or friends in trying to form new behaviours like this?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
That's another thing that many people find really helpful for reinforcing behaviour change. So once you've made a plan, it can be good to share this with others, to encourage you to keep up with it so you could tell friends or family and perhaps post about it on social media.
And this creates a sense of accountability. So we're more likely to carry out a behaviour or a habit if we think that others will see us in a positive way and that we keep our word, or if we don't do it, that we might be letting other people down.
So I've seen friends who've kind of decided to go vegan and they've posted photos of their meals on social media and then others who've decided not to buy food, cosmetics, which come in single use plastics, and they've blogged about how they've worked around that.
Yeah, and I guess a lot of people use social media in particular to keep themselves accountable for any sort of challenge you take on, whether that be, you know, running a race or taking part in a challenge for charity. And I think that's a great way to keep yourself accountable. And if any sustainability changes you're trying to make and I can see how this would help you stick to these new behaviours.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, exactly. Although she points out, this shouldn't mean putting too much pressure on yourself to reach unrealistic goals or expecting too much of yourself. Some of these changes might seem simple, so something like stopping buying single use plastics, but you're still likely to be creating a new habit and it can still take quite a lot of thought.
So if you're out for the day and you forget to take your reusable water bottle and have to buy one, it's like, just don't beat yourself up about it.
Maybe just remember to recycle it afterwards and then next time you go out, it might help to leave a note for yourself or set a reminder on your phone just to remind you to take your water bottle with you. And it can help if you change the way you see yourself as well. So if you think of yourself as an environmentally friendly person, then this can really help you to act in a sustainable way, as we tend to like to act in line with how we see ourselves.
And this can prompt us to make greener decisions. And I would said to make a behaviour habit, we need to repeat this over and over until it becomes automatic. So like we won't need to time ourselves in the shower. We'll just be used to spending less time in there, or will automatically be more aware of the amount of packaging on items and we'll just avoid buying them without having to really think about it.
And then things like getting the bus or the train to work instead of driving will just become a normal part of our routines. And you can also monitor your behaviour using a carbon tracker tool. So the WWF have a great online footprint calculator which helps you work out your carbon footprint, how to reduce it in different areas, and you'll be able to see the difference that you need in the sustainable choices are making, but can really boost your motivation to keep going.
So if you stop eating beef or say, switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can see the difference this makes to your carbon footprint.
Yeah, that's a great tip and that's also a great tool as well. I'm sure a lot of people will agree that when we start off with the intention of changing our behaviour or trying to form a new habit or motivation levels tend to be quite high at the start. Is motivation a key tool for behaviour change?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah. So motivation is it's important for behaviour change, particularly for initiating change, but it's really complex and it's not the only elements of our behaviour. It can be quite problematic because it can fluctuate.
So we might feel really motivated to do something later in the day or later in the week. But then when we come to it in a different context, when we might be feeling more tired or have other priorities, then our motivation can really lag. High levels of motivation tend to be unsustainable, and that's where it can be difficult to make changes for long enough for them to become a habit, to become an automatic part of how we act like on a daily basis.
So maybe you decide that becoming vegan will help you to be more sustainable, and it has a bonus effect of making you healthier and perhaps even saving you money. Then you decide to change your diet, but then after a few days with no may your initial motivating motivation kind of starts to wane. And this can be because of various things.
So it could be your own knowledge and the environment that maybe you're struggling to find the right produce or meats, the alternatives that you like the taste of, or you just don't know how to cook tasty vegan dishes. And it's just easier to go back to what you know and then rustle up something like a beef bolognaise and cheese or to buy dairy products that might be quicker and easier to use.
Yeah, I can see how that would make your new habits harder to stick to. And especially, like you say, if you need sort of vegan or vegetarian recipes as an example. I mean, while we're on the subject, I know that we do have a great article full of vegan inspiration on the health information pages. On one of our healthy Me articles.
So if anyone listening, struggling with sort of ideas and inspiration, make sure to check out for some ideas. So we now know that it's quite challenging to keep fit and motivated to kind of keep these new lifestyle changes going. So what can we think of to keep us going on a difficult day? Maybe when you're feeling tired, like you said, or, you know, feeling a little bit low on inspiration?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, I think it can sometimes help to just remind ourselves of the reasons that we're trying to make these changes. So thinking about what our aims and goals are and why we're doing this and having an awareness of environmental issues and the extent of the climate crisis is important to changing our behaviour, as is the belief that individual actions matter.
So just to go to a recent survey or the Office for National Statistics, and they found that 25% of adults weren't concerned about climate change. And this is important because people who expressed concern were then more likely to make lifestyle choices to help tackle climate change. And not knowing much about the issue was cited as one of the most common reasons for the lack of worry, as well as having the view that there are more important things to worry about.
And 19% of adults who responded said that they'd made no lifestyle changes to help tackle climate change. And the most common reasons given for this were thinking that lifestyle changes wouldn't help the issue and that large polluters should change before individuals. So we can see how our knowledge and awareness of issues around climate change and the need for sustainability can affect our motivation to act.
So it's not enough to know about the issues alone. This doesn't necessarily trigger us into action, but we do need to care about the cause and feel motivated into taking action and then again to make that action long lasting.
Yeah, and that's something I've heard a lot, actually, and the kind of feeling that we're too small as individuals to make an impact. But, you know, as you said, if everybody saw it that way, we would never have any change. And, you know, we do all have our part to play.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, exactly. And we can sometimes be guided into making changes through the environment and infrastructure around us. And while that can sometimes come from government or local policy, it ultimately needs to come from us as individuals, as the ones who need to make the changes. So just just as an example of how the environment can help us to make long lasting changes, if we look at plastic bag-use going back a few years, a lot of us would use single use plastic bags for shopping.
But then the introduction of the 5P charge for bags, some of the large retailers in the UK in 2015 gradually reduced this with an almost 50% reduction in just a few years, and that charge then went up to 10p back in 2022, with some supermarkets completely scrapping single use bags, charging more for their stronger and longer lasting bags and reinforcing the message for reusable bags. And actually taking our own bags in shops now is a lot more common because we've adopted our habit.
So I would say that now I always remember to take my reusable bags for Lego to do the shopping because it's become a habit. And that was really from being guided by problems in the environment. But when the environment doesn't lead us into habit changes, we need to restructure our own environments to make long lasting changes stick. And that can be in ways we've already discussed, like changing our shopping habits, taking the use of water bottles or reusable coffee cups and using public transport instead of driving.
And these are all ways in which we can change our own environment as keys and triggers to continue with behaviours that might be better for the environment.
Yeah, again, these are some great ideas to put into place and lots of practical tips to take forward. So Sarah, for could to close with, do you have any ideas for other sustainable behaviour changes that listeners can start to implement to be more sustainable from today? Now that we've got some great behaviour change tips to put into practice?
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, of course. So obviously we've talked about a few things already, but you can also try saving water. So by having showers instead of baths and turning the tap off when you brush your teeth. So these changes to existing actions or habits can sometimes just be easier to implement than making new ones because they might just require a few kind of Prompts in the bathroom.
We talked about some tips to help with this earlier, So like setting a timer to help you keep to your target. Showering and showers tend to take less time than baths. So I guess we could also think about how much time will save by swapping to showers. That's kind of motivation for making this change. You could use the extra time in bed in the morning or a few extra minutes to enjoy a cup of tea before work.
And then to save energy you can reduce the temperature and the thermostat is set to turn off any lights that you just don't need on.
And then if you want to make big changes, you could look into solar panels or other ways of producing your own green energy and these things will save money on your energy bills. So it's worth remembering that as well.
And then in terms of travel, so you can try driving less if you can. So using public transport or sharing lifts to the office will do. And car share for the school run if it's too far to walk and then try walking more locally, so like if you're go to the doctor's or the local shop.
And then big changes would be to make the switch to a hybrid or a fully electric car.
And then with food, shopping and eating. So you can try planning meals to reduce waste and use of leftovers and you can buy foods which are in season or you can grow your own veg and herbs. This can even be done in window sill boxes, so you don't need too much space for that. And these things can save you money and can reduce your carbon footprint.
And a lot of us might have food caddies for food waste so it can be composted. And we might have already developed some really good habits of putting food waste in them rather than in the bin. And then the next step might be to limit the amount of food that goes into those caddies.
Yeah, and I know that we do have another useful article kind of relating to this in the Bupa Healthy Me article collection which is on reducing food waste and it's got some great recipes that you can put together after things you might have left over in the fridge or your cupboards. That kind of help with that.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths:
Yeah, that sounds really helpful. And yeah, that would be a great place to get some tips. And then you can also look at your shopping and recycling behavior. So rethinking whether you really need to buy new clothes, reduce how often you buy new or re-wear, or repurpose what you already have the most forgotten about.
Yeah, and there are lots of bargains to be found at charity shops, as I'm sure we all know, it can be really cost effective way of updating your wardrobe by buying something that's already out there looking for a new home. And you know win-win- you are supporting a worthy cause.
Dr. Sarah Griffiths
Yeah, exactly. On there are there are loads of websites where you can sell your old things as well, or you can take those to charity shops for other people to repurpose.
And then just go back to the all or nothing approach that we spoke about earlier and how that can get in the way of us making positive, sustainable changes on the things you just mentioned can feel like a just like a long list of things to change.
So I would say is to pick one or two things and repeat until you feel like it's more or less automatic and then you can pick another thing to change. And remember that even though you might not be able to see the differences, small changes can make positive impact to our planet.
Thanks so much again, Sarah, for taking the time to talk to us today. I definitely feel ready to take on all things sustainability. If you'd like to learn more about how you can make changes in your life to be more sustainable or listen to other podcast in the BPA Sustainability Series - you can find a wealth of articles and our complete podcast series by visiting the Health Information pages on the Bupa website.