A Real-World Reflection of Sustainability in Everyday Life
Sustainability. A word that has become highly meaningful in the twenty-first century. Nations worldwide join together to develop common goals for a more sustainable life on planet Earth; single governments work out strategies to reach defined goals within their countries; and institutions and firms establish the idea of a sustainable future in the private sector. However, the concept of sustainability is not only a major issue on global, national and local scales. It has also spread into the everyday language of civil society – to you and to me, to our families, our friends, our neighbours and colleagues. But how sustainable does a single individual in our society behave in this changing world?
If you try to answer that question for yourself, you will – at some stage –come to the point where you realize that your intentions and your actions are not always aligned. Maybe, the beloved chocolate spread Nutella is a basic item on your breakfast table, even though you clearly don’t want to support deforestation of our rain-forest for the production of palm oil? Sometimes there is a gap between our sustainability values and the way we behave, consume or act. Yet, in many cases, it does not take a lot to fill these gaps. The most important step is to become aware of them and the easiest approach to do so is through reflection. Reflect on your everyday habits, reflect on your experiences, and reflect on your observations – I’m sure you will find some gaps.
One thing I observed is that often people simply behave out of habit or they adopt specific behaviors from their surroundings without really being aware of it. When I studied at the University of Bremen, for example, everyone who wanted to take a coffee to the lectures would generally get a to-go cup from the café on campus. Coming to the Leuphana University Lüneburg, by contrast, I eventually observed a different student’s behavior. Here, the majority of students – no matter where they come from – either take private thermos cups to university which they refill at the café or they get reusable porcelain cups which they return to the café after their lectures. It only took me a few weeks of studying at Leuphana until I, too, bought a reusable thermos cup, which I now never leave at home anymore. Avoiding to-go coffee cups seems to be an unspoken social norm at this university – a highly justified social norm in regard to sustainability. In Germany, about 130,000 of the non-recyclable plastic-coated paper cups land in the garbage every hour, causing harm to the environment through their production and through their disposal. However, I don’t think students in Bremen generally care less about the environment and the amount of trash they produce. There, it is just a general habit to use to-go cups, something usual and ordinary, something everybody does. This observation brought up to me the importance of questioning everyday habits and it shows to me how the environment people live in influence their general behavior – often unconsciously.
Reflect on your own habits! Are they sustainable? May there be sustainable alternatives? In Germany, 130,000 to-go cups are thrown in the garbage every hour; many people use them without considering the resulting consequences; however, using reusable thermos cups can be a considerable sustainable alternative. Reflection can often be the tipping point in the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. (Photos taken by T. Allers)
However, not every action people take happens unconsciously. Sometimes, we are well aware of the negative consequences of our behavior and still don’t change it because we somehow benefit from it. One example for this conscious unsustainable behavior is the usage of private motorized vehicles. I myself know this inner conflict very well. Driving the car to the university saves me at least three times as much time as taking the bus. On the other hand, I know about the negative impacts of the pollution it causes to our climate and to our health. If I decide to take the car anyhow, my behavior can be referred to as the so called ‘intention-action gap’ or the ‘value-action gap’ (Wiek, 2015). My intention is to behave environmentally friendly, but I do not act according to my values when I drive the car, because the convenience and the time saving of driving the car has, in this case, a higher priority for me than my worry about climate and health.
Convenience-based intention-action gaps are, however, not the only obstacles that we have to handle when we intend to live sustainably. Sometimes, certain restrictions can make such a lifestyle very difficult, leading to more value-action gaps. The supermarket, for example, holds quite a few sustainability traps. Just a few weeks ago I was standing in the fresh food department of a supermarket – feeling completely clueless. I wanted to buy some apples, but after comparing the selection I realized that I had the choice between imported loose apples from New Zealand and plastic-wrapped apples from the region. Which ones to take? The apples from New Zealand had been transported half way around the world. Thereby, they contributed to the enormously high amount of carbon emissions by aviation (in Germany, carbon emissions by aviation make up a total amount of 15% among all modes of transport!). Plastic, on the other side, such as the one wrapped around the regional apples, has become one of the major environmental problems because it does not biodegrade and especially harms our oceans in the form of micro plastic.
Actually, I only had one choice if I wanted to circumvent this inner conflict: don’t buy apples from the supermarket and go to the farmers market in town. However, even if the market had been open, it would have taken much more time than simply buying the apples from the supermarket and probably it would have been more expensive, too. So, the circumstances in the supermarket led to another intention-action gap. Thoughts of money and time saving were in conflict with my general intention of buying sustainable products when I bought the apples from the supermarket anyways. By the way, I chose the plastic wrapped apples from the region. Don’t ask me, though, whether this was the most sustainable decision.
What restricts YOU from behaving sustainable? Plastic wrapped apples from the region or loose apples that have been transported from half-way around the world…?! Sometimes, certain restrictions keep us from acting sustainably. (Photos taken by T. Allers)
Reflection as Foundation for Change
I could name many more examples that influence our everyday sustainability foot-print, like the clothes we wear, the smartphones most of us own, the energy we spend day after day in different ways, the heating that keeps us warm or the waste that many of us separate at home but do not separate in public. However, as I don’t have the space and you might not have the time, I would like to draw your attention towards a slightly different direction:
While writing this blog entry, one highly inspiring TED talk came into my mind. The talk is given by Ms. Taiye Selasi (Oct. 2014) who addresses the matter of personal identity. She therein criticizes the common question – where are you from? – and emphasizes that ‘[your] experience is where [you] come from’. To answer the question in the future, she recommends to think about ‘the [following] 3 R’s’– restrictions, relationships and rituals – as they are all part of our experiences which in turn shape our identity. The reason why this talk suddenly came into my mind is probably because not only experiences in life are very closely connected to restrictions, relationships and rituals, but, as my examples from above show, also people’s behaviors and habits are influenced by them – consciously or unconsciously.
The 3 R’s introduced by Selasi can therefore also help us to analyse our sustainability behavior in everyday life:
- Restrictions, such as insufficient opportunities of public transport or poor access to sustainably produced products often influence our actions in everyday life and may even lead to intention-action gaps in regard to a sustainable lifestyle.
- Relationships, or rather the general surrounding, are another important factor that controls our everyday behavior. Often, we adopt certain habits from our environment. Remember my observation of coffee cups within two different universities? – That is a good example how our surrounding influences our behavior. This can have different reasons, like varying social norms, differing values or diverse cultures.
- Rituals, often in the form of daily habits, play another important role in the sustainability balance of our lifestyle. Often, we are not aware of potential consequences caused by our routines as we act unconsciously and hardly ever question certain actions.
For the intention of adopting a sustainable lifestyle it is therefore very important to reflect on the everyday actions we take and to differentiate between unconscious and conscious behaviors. Unconscious behaviors are often times much easier to change as they are not based on deliberate intention-action gaps. However, first we must become aware of them and of their consequences to be able to find a sustainable alternative.
So, in regards to finding an answer to the question ‘how sustainable do you live?’ I would like to add a fourth R, a fourth R that builds the basis for Selasi’s remaining 3 R’s. This fourth R is Reflection. Reflection on one’s own lifestyle must always be the first step to becoming aware of certain unsustainable habits. If we reflect on our daily restrictions, on our relationships and on our routines we will get a very clear view of the sustainability of our own lifestyle.
So, according to my own reflection on the sustainability (goals, initiatives, actions) in my life I have to admit that no, I do not always act according to my sustainability intention. Sometimes I have a bad conscience, because in some cases I don’t mind the gap emerging between intention and action. Probably, there will always be some unintentional unsustainable habits in my everyday life, as my life isn’t a stable state, but will constantly changes with new routines, new restrictions and new relationships. However, since I started to put on the glasses of sustainability and as I started to reflect on my own (un-)sustainable behavior, I already changed certain habits in my life and step by step little changes like that, little changes within the sustainability actions of the civil society, will make (and already do make) a major change on our way to a more sustainable future.
References cited in my blog entry
Fischer, T.: Problem Kaffeebecher. Retrieved from: Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V., URL: http://www.duh.de/becherheld_problem/ (as consulted online on January 15th 2017)
Hockenos, P. (2016): Car giant Germany struggles to ignite Energiewende in transportation. Retrieved from:Clean Energy Wire, URL: https://www.cleanenergywire.org/dossiers/energy-transition-and-germanys-transport-sector (as consulted online on January 25. 2017)
Selasi, T. (2014): Don’t ask me where I come from, ask me where I’m a local. Retrieved from: TED Ideas worth spreading, URL: https://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from-_ask_where_i_m_a_local (as consulted online on January 15th 2017)
Wiek, A. (2015): Solving Sustainability Problems. Tools for a New Generation of Profssionals. Tempe, AZ, USA