• Jenny Foster

What are the triggers for sustainable behaviour change?

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Helen Shore, University of Bristol

Earlier this year, while studying for an MSc in Environmental Policy and Politics at University of Bristol, I was given the opportunity to do some research for the Global Goals Centre. I jumped at the chance to be able to contribute to such an inspirational idea.

My task was to find out from the young people of Bristol what they understood about the Global Goals, the actions they take in their life that support the Goals and the experiences they have had that make them change their behaviour.

I was able to get opinions from young people in several secondary schools, from graduates of the Catalyse Change project and the Bristol Youth Council. As with all sectors of society there was a great range in understanding and personal action.

It became apparent very quickly that although there is a lot of information out there, it is not that easy to navigate. One of the young people said “we don’t just want to be told that global warming is going to go over 2oC because that doesn’t seem like a bad thing at all, we need to be told what that actually means”, I have heard this from many people and although there is information out there it is often presented in very complex and off putting ways. Information needs to be accessible and if you have the opportunity to feel it not just ‘see’ it that can make a real difference.

Experiencing things, in everyday life or in a learning environment had provided lasting impressions on many of the young people I spoke to. Many primary schools in Bristol take their pupils to the ‘Lifeskills – Learning for Living’ programme where they learn and practice skills in a simulated village. This experience was referred to by lots of the young people as something they remembered and learnt a lot from because of the experience: “I still remember what I learnt to do in a fire at the Lifeskills centre because I actually had to do it and it felt real – and that was YEARS ago. If you actually do it then you can remember it, I haven’t been in a fire but I would know what to do, so I think if I could actually do something that felt real then I would do the things that were better for the sustainable goals”.

Information is really important to help people understand how their actions impact people, poverty and the environment and can inspire them to change the way they do things in their everyday lives. Some of the comments the young people made to me included, “The more I was educated on what was happening the more guilty I felt, and the more responsibility I had to change because I didn’t want to ignore or support what was going on anymore”, and, “When I find out about what is happening to other people in the world I feel lucky compared to them and then I do stuff to try and make things better for them too” and along with an understanding what your impact is, it is also important to provide solutions “Being part of the solution makes you feel better and motivates you”, for example, “When you know what you are doing is actually a good thing, like not letting plastic get into the sea where it is bad, makes you feel good and keep on doing the right thing”.

A lack of solutions being offered is a barrier to many of us, including young people. One young person said “I know that I shouldn’t buy stuff from cheap shops because it is bad for people in factories in places like India and China but I don’t know what I should buy to make it better for them because you hear about expensive brands using sweat shops too, so I know it isn’t about just buying expensive stuff, which is good because a lot of people don’t have enough money to do that but what I should do I don’t know”. Providing realistic solutions is very important to enable everyone to change their behaviours to ones that can support the Global Goals, as was summed up very well by one of the young people I spoke to “be realistic pointing out what to replace in our everyday lives, as a lot is difficult to do and then we won’t do it”. So, pointers in the right direction help everyone!

People that are relatable doing inspirational things can provide strong motivation to change yourself. Inspiring role models were great motivators for change. There were the names that many of us had heard of such as Boyan Slat , Greta Thunberg, and Malala Yousafzai and comments such as: “If someone my age can do things like that then I can probably do it too – but maybe not in such a big way. Actually, maybe I can do it in such a big way, I just need an idea”. However, they were also inspired by things they had experienced in the community as expressed by another Bristol secondary school student, “One of my friends asked me to come to a thing where we helped to fix some stuff on Troopers Hill and to pick up litter, it was fun but I didn’t like picking up the litter, so now I always put my litter in a bin or in my bag. If I hadn’t done that thing with my friend I probably wouldn’t have changed”.

Most of them agreed that the best learning experiences incorporated both actual physical experiences along with technology to enhance or expand those experiences. So, hopefully it won’t be long before we are able to visit the Global Goals Centre and start learning ourselves.

I had an amazing time doing this research and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity. I would like to end this with a quote from one of the young people that I spoke to who summed up how they would like to see the future,

“I would like to see a change in attitude towards being sustainable as an everyday thing that everyone does almost without thinking. Where being sustainable is normal”.

This is a future I would very much like to see too and I believe the Global Goals Centre is key to achieving.

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