The Psychology Behind Why Our Green Habits Have Changed

Last year marked a return to using disposable coffee cups and driving instead of using public transport. Can we get back on track?
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If there’s one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that it’s hard to live a greener life in the midst of a pandemic. Staunch devotees of reusable coffee cups have returned to disposables, while those who once swore by public transport have turned to their cars for a safer commute.

Of course, our choices have been shaped by a need to stay alive. Reusable cups weren’t deemed hygienic in a society obsessively washing their hands every five minutes, while public transport became a last resort for many. When food options were limited (remember stockpiling?), people found alternatives wherever they could. And when scientists came out in favour of surgical masks over cloth masks, safety was prioritised over the need to protect the planet.

After three years of vegetarianism, journalist Amelia Tate said she “shamelessly” tucked into meat a few weeks into the first lockdown. And in a piece for The Observer, others reported their socially responsible lifestyle choices had gone down the plug hole, too – avid recyclers chucked cardboard in the bin, and people who only bought secondhand started buying fast fashion online.

Many people have experience “green guilt” as a result. More than half of Brits feel guilty because they don’t do enough to help the environment, new research shows. The survey of 2,000 adults by Budweiser found, most commonly, people felt guilt over food waste, followed by driving instead of walking, and using plastic bottles.

Dr Jo Hale, senior research associate at the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, says people’s attitudes towards green living in the past year haven’t all been bad – in fact, it’s quite complicated.

While anecdotally, it might seem like many of us have fallen at various hurdles, research by the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) found that in the UK, people’s concern about the urgency of tackling climate change increased during the pandemic.

The research showed consumption and food waste were lower during lockdown than when restrictions were relaxed again, and many people had intentions to work from home more and fly less after the pandemic. This chimes with other reports suggesting more people are making environmentally-friendly purchases and are more concerned about sustainability now than pre-pandemic.

So why have some people remained eco-conscious, while others have let their habits slip? To understand what drives green behaviours, Dr Hale says it’s helpful to think about “capability, opportunity and motivation” – the three conditions needed to do any behaviour. These go some of the way to explain why our eco-friendly lifestyles may have changed slightly in the past year.

Capability refers to our knowledge, skills and physical abilities. Have these changed for you during the pandemic? Dr Hales offers the example that people with long Covid might have reduced physical capability to walk or cycle, so they’re taking their car instead. On the other hand, some might have been able to learn new planet-friendly skills in lockdown, such as gardening.

“Our concerns about the virus may weigh against concerns about the environment.”

- Dr Jo Hale, senior research associate at the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change

Opportunity refers to factors in our physical and social environments, which have changed dramatically in the past year. Social distancing rules may mean more people are use deliveries and private transport, while many cafés removed the option for customers to use reusable cups. But on the flip side, workplace policies and social norms shifted to make home working easier (a win for the environment with fewer people commuting).

And the last condition – motivation – involves our beliefs and emotions – this is where Covid-19 safety worries (of which there have been many) might alter our behaviours. “Our concerns about the virus may weigh against concerns about the environment,” she says. Ultimately, safety concerns will probably win. “This could be a factor in taking private transport, using single-use masks or getting home deliveries, for example,” she says.

There are many reasons why our behaviours may have changed when it comes to protecting the planet – and it very much reflects the extraordinary situation we’ve found ourselves in. But Dr Hales believes, as we re-enter society and get back to some semblance of normal, our greener behaviours will also return.

“Routines are often linked to contexts,” she says. “So, to the extent that home, work, social, travel and other contexts return to how they were before the pandemic, people may fall into their old routines in those contexts.”