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Sustainability takes effort

We may well feel that sorting our waste into the separate recycling bins or perusing the wonky veg is a job well done. But in reality we are only touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of embracing sustainability. In fact, for many of us, that very word gives us a headache, because what does it actually mean? And how can we adapt our shopping and consuming behaviours if we don’t know what it is?

For UK shoppers, sustainability is a word that has multiple meanings (Fig 1) and that can describe multiple different shopping behaviours (Fig 2).

Figure 1 - What Sustainability means (Total n=1018)

Figure 2 - 'Sustainable' shopping behaviours (Total n=1018)

Sustainability as a concept encompasses recycling, renewables, being environmentally friendly, protecting the planet and species, ethical production and balancing diverse needs. From the consumer perspective the phrase “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations” seems to be the best summary, but without the detail of the individual elements it lacks tangibility. As a result it is difficult to understand what actions are required of us as individuals within our communities.

There is no single behaviour that we can adopt in order to shop in a sustainable way. Instead there are all manner of actions: from buying sustainably sourced products; to choosing recycled packaging; and avoiding single use plastic – to mention just the top 3 in shoppers minds. Even if we just focus on these three factors, what happens if the product we are looking to buy is indeed a sustainably sourced product, but it is unclear if the packaging itself is recyclable? Which factor is more aligned with sustainability, and therefore more important to consider?

It’s a very complex set of criteria we are trying to make quick judgements within our purchase decisions – almost like a game of top trumps! And let’s not forget that the average household, most of whom are trying to do the right thing because they describe themselves as ‘environmentally friendly’, are juggling these complexities with the demands of increasingly busy lives. For all the will in the world, can we reasonably expect a harassed parent to make a rationale decision about the sustainability of a product when they are rushing to buy dinner for tonight before getting the kids from school?

The desire to do the right thing is clearly there, but as defining the ‘right thing’ becomes more difficult, consumers/shoppers need more help from manufacturers, retailers and government. Help to see the ‘right’ products in-store, help to differentiate between the options, and a lot more guidance on what will make a difference.

Of course, as this becomes a topic that is increasingly written (and read!) about,the low chances of consistent stories also sow the seeds of doubt about the efficacy of so-said-solutions. It isn’t easy. It’s hard to make informed decisions. For example, according to the Sustainable Restaurant Association as reported in the Guardian*: pre-shipping, the carbon created by a litre of semi-skimmed milk (1.67kg) is far higher than that of almond milk (360g). But this singular measure ignores the environmental damage almond plantations are doing in California, and the water cost. It takes 6,098 litres to produce 1 litre of almond milk.

Making this hugely complex subject more straightforward and more intuitive is going to be key to the success of ‘sustainable living’. And that’s not a job that politicians or business can palm off on shoppers/consumers.

Sarah Banks

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