[Podcast] How to change our behaviours to be more sustainable

profile picture of Lucy Kapoutsos
Health Content Editor at Bupa UK
07 March 2023
Next review due March 2026

In this episode of our sustainability podcast series, we look at how we can change our habits and behaviours to be kinder to the planet.

I’m joined by Dr Sarah Griffiths, Bupa’s Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor. Sarah talks us through the science behind behaviour change, and provides some tips to help us form new habits and behaviours. Sarah also suggests some small changes we can make to help us become more sustainable.

This article provides highlights of our conversation.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is living in a way that limits use of the earth’s natural resources. Natural resources are things like the land, forests, and oceans.

Being sustainable is also about taking responsibility for our needs, while being considerate of the needs of people in the future, too.

We can look at sustainability as being made up of three parts:

  • environmental protection
  • economic growth
  • social development

To have ‘true’ sustainability, Sarah explains, we need an overlap in all three of these areas. This means we need to protect the environment, whilst also promoting social and economic growth and development.

Living and working in an unsustainable way has contributed to climate change. And human activity such as cutting down trees (deforestation), and burning coal, oil and gas (fossil fuels) has contributed to this.

We can already see the impact of climate change, with many countries experiencing unusually high temperatures in recent years. There’s also been an increase in flooding and bush fires due to drier and windier weather.

We only have one Earth so it’s essential that we look after it.

The good news is that we can all take positive steps to reduce our impact on the environment, while improving our health and wellbeing.

Why is it hard to change our behaviour?

When it comes to changing our behaviour, we often have the view that it’s all or nothing. Which, as Sarah explains, can make us feel pressured into making big changes that we can’t maintain. Or, that we’re unable to make in the first place.

We know from behavioural science that trying to change too much at once can make it more difficult to sustain behaviour changes in the long-term. To explain why it’s hard to make changes, it’s helpful to look at the way our brains work. Sarah says that we can think of our brains as having two systems.

  • System one. This system is automatic and quick-thinking, and is behind most of the things we do every day, without having to really think about it.
  • System two. This system is our conscious and reflective brain. This second system is responsible for our thoughts and how we think about the consequences of our actions.

Using system two can be slower and requires more effort from our brains. This is why it can be difficult to make new habits become automatic, ‘system one’ behaviours that we don’t have to think too much about doing.

How can I form new habits?

As Sarah discusses, once we‘ve repeated an action over and over, it becomes easier, and we don’t have to think too much about it. But, we often need to perform a behaviour many times before it becomes familiar. So, when looking to make sustainable changes, repeating our new behaviours is key to helping them become long-lasting habits.

There may be some habits that we’ve picked up that aren’t great for the environment. These might be throwing away rubbish without recycling, or leaving the tap on while brushing our teeth. It can be hard to replace these automatic ‘system one’ behaviours with new ones as they’re so engrained. We have to put in a consistent effort in order to change them.

What can I do to make my new habits stick?

The following are Sarah’s five top tips to help you form new habits.

  • Change one thing at a time. It can be tempting to want to make lots of changes, all at once, especially when it comes to an important issue like sustainability. However, research shows that people who change one thing at a time are more likely to be successful.
  • Start small. Making small, manageable changes can help you to stay motivated. So if you’re looking to make more sustainable meals, why not try adapting one of your regular meals using seasonal vegetables? Or make it plant-based using lentils and pulses. You could use a protein substitute such as tofu for example.
  • Write an action plan to achieve your goals. Cycling, rather than using public transport, can be a great way to get some exercise and reduce emissions. Setting an action plan can help you to achieve this change. Plan what time you need to leave the house, what you’ll wear, the route you’ll take and where you can store your bike.
  • Make a public commitment to keep yourself accountable. One way to stay accountable to your behaviour change goals is to make a public commitment or sign a pledge. For example, tell a loved one about your plans. Or write about what you’re doing on social media. Telling others can help to keep you accountable and can help you stay on track.
  • Monitor your progress. Use a carbon tracker tool to see the personal impact you’re making through your healthy changes. By choosing to walk rather than drive, you’ll see in real time how much carbon you’ve avoided emitting.

How can I stay motivated?

To help us stay motivated, Sarah advises we should think about the reasons we decided to make these changes and focus on our goals. Having an awareness of environmental issues and the extent of the climate crisis is important for changing our behaviour. As is the belief that our individual actions matter and remembering that small changes matter and can make a difference.

What are some environmentally friendly changes I can make today?

Here are some ideas of small changes you can make today to be kinder to the planet:

  • have a short shower instead of a bath
  • turn off unnecessary lights
  • cycle to work, if you can
  • use up leftover food and reduce food waste 
  • shop at charity shops rather than buying new items

By taking steps to make small changes, we can positively impact our health, and the health of those around us. Taking action in our own lives can help to support the health of the planet, both now and in the future.

Interested in learning more about sustainability? You can listen to other podcasts in this series on healthy and sustainable homeworking habits and how to turn eco-anxiety into positive action

At Bupa, we're supporting the health of our planet. We've committed to a wide range of ambitious sustainability measures - partly because it's the right thing to do, but also because we know that the environment is closely linked to our physical and mental health.

profile picture of Lucy Kapoutsos
Lucy Kapoutsos (she/her)
Health Content Editor at Bupa UK



Dr Sarah Griffiths, Bupa’s Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor.

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