About two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to household consumption. So there is no question that changes in lifestyles are integral to the solutions package towards a sustainable future.
Yet, questions abound: Does action by an individual make any difference? Is buying green the solution? What actions should be priority? Does money make us happier? Are car owners deliberately wrecking the environment? Shall we go back to living in caves?
Here are ten key messages culled from multidisciplinary scientific research on transitioning to sustainable lifestyles.
1. Green consumption is not the same as sustainable living.
Sustainable living incorporates green consumption where necessary, and extends to immaterial aspects of labour, love and laughter, while being guided by equity in, and wellbeing of society. While green consumption and eco labelled products might be better than conventional ones, buying too many of them leads to rebound effects – essentially upsetting the eco value.
In a sustainable lifestyles transition, we need to provide non-consumption and out-of-market options.
2. The environmental impacts of lifestyles mainly come from four domains: food, mobility, housing, and consumer goods.
Among these, eating meat, flights, and poorly insulated, large houses are especially problematic.
Prioritising design, production and consumption patterns in these domains will address about three-quarters of environmental issues.
3. There is no universal sustainable lifestyle – what is sustainable in one place may not be sustainable in another.
If you must use a car, then an electric car in Norway might make sense, according to life-cycle assessment, but not in Poland where the electricity grid is primarily based on coal-fired power.
Successful examples of sustainable lifestyles practices should only be replicated and scaled in new places after careful adaptation.
4. Increasing awareness does not usually lead to action.
Knowledge of environment impacts of consumption does not usually lead to change in lifestyle. This knowledge-action or attitude-behaviour gap shows the limits of information campaigns.
Awareness is easily subordinated by lack of access or lock-in by prevailing options. The default options need to be made sustainable.
5. The question of individual behaviour change versus systems change is a false dichotomy!
Lifestyles choices are enabled and constrained by social norms and the physical environment or infrastructure. And history is full of heroes and communities that have come together to defy the odds.
6. Beyond the point of enabling basic needs and a life of dignity, having more money does not directly translate to more happiness.
There is little evidence, especially in industrialised nations, to support the assumption that unending growth of gross domestic product beyond current levels translates to increase in wellbeing.
People’s expressions of happiness correlate with the level of trust in the community, social ties, education, health, and meaningful employment.
7. Inequality and perceived unfairness in society is a strong predictor of whether an intervention will fail or succeed.
People will accept radical solutions if they are justified and everyone is perceived as bearing a fair share of responsibility. Manifestations of social tension get stronger as disparity in socio-economic conditions between groups get wider.
Ensuring sustainable lifestyles will fail if efforts are not made to address the extremes of poverty and wealth in society.
8. The environmental impacts of lifestyles are not intentional but rather a consequence of people aspiring to fulfil needs or desires, and to function in society.
Everyday practices of people are determined by social norms and values, and depend on systems and infrastructure around them.
Change the choice architecture, social values and norms, physical infrastructure, provisioning systems.
9. Lifestyles are not static; needs are a function of time and place.
People’s needs and aspirations in life change as the personal situation, society, and the physical environment change. Different stages of life bring different perspectives.
Milestones and key transition moments in life – marriage, graduations, birth or death, relocation – offer opportunities for reshaping lifestyles.
10. Sustainable lifestyles are not all about reducing consumption.
A central tenet of sustainable society is not complete abstinence but consumption within regenerative capacity. Social evolution includes examination and creative adaptation towards new ways of meeting our needs. The abolition of slavery did not eradicate plantations!
Social innovations, social movements, and grassroots experiments, are pivotal in opening up new avenues and engendering acceptability of sustainable solutions.