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4. Sustainable practices

 
Image from Jaako on flickr

Image from Jaako on flickr cc15px

Sustainability is one of the most pressing societal challenges of the 21st century, connecting concerns about climate change, natural resource depletion, threats to biodiversity and the predicted expansion (and increasing affluence) of the world’s population. Reducing or changing what people consume (ie the goods we buy and the services we use) is recognised as an important way of addressing this challenge, by lowering carbon emissions, preserving natural resources and so on. This makes sustainability sound easy – as though we will all walk into a shop and select the most sustainable toilet roll. But sociologists (as well as environmentalists, policymakers, and retailers) know that it doesn’t work like this in real life. There is a ‘value-action gap’: most people are concerned about the environment but do not consume in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Research at the University of Manchester, notably from the Sustainable Practices Research Group (SPRG) and Sustainable Consumption Institute, led by Dale Southerton, takes a different perspective on sustainable consumption. It looks at the reasons behind our choices: maybe we don’t buy the most sustainable loo roll because another brand is on special offer; or the shop we’ve popped in to doesn’t stock it; or we just can’t work out whether recycled loo roll is better than bamboo and, besides we like our usual brand. Looking at a wider range of practices in which consumption occurs, rather than focusing on purchasing decisions helps researchers understand behaviour. A lot of this behaviour is formed through habit or routine and in time become ‘norms’. By exploring and explaining these norms, researchers are working with large retailers and governments to influence consumer behaviour, potentially creating new norms which can be more sustainable.

 

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