Making greener choices

What psychology goes into making greener choices?
27 April 2021

Interview with 

Jo Hale, UCL


recycling symbol


So far we’ve discussed greener alternatives to the ways we use water, textiles, and energy in the home. And to reflect on these aspects is behaviour change psychologist Jo Hale from UCL, who spoke to Katie Haylor...

Jo - I think it can be helpful to think about capability, opportunity and motivation factors. So these are the three conditions needed for any kind of behaviour change, including making green actions. So capability refers to knowledge and skills and physical abilities. Opportunity is more about our resources. So the time and money at our disposal, and our physical surroundings and our social environment as well. And then motivation involves, on the one hand, our attitudes, beliefs, and values, so quite reflective aspects; and also our emotions and routines and habits, which are more automatic drivers of behaviour. And these three factors aren't completely separate, they interact. So for example, having greater capability and more opportunity could lead to more motivation to make a change.

Katie - So could you apply this modelling to maybe a few of the things that we've been talking about, like water or avoiding textiles ending up in landfill, or energy use?

Jo - Yeah, sure. So for each of those three areas, we can think about what barriers might there be in terms of people's capability, opportunity, or motivation, and then how to remove those barriers. So just to take some examples for using water more wisely, we might find that actually our old habits and routines around using the shower and the sink and the washing machine tend to override things. And that's a motivation factor. And to maybe overcome that you could do something like putting a prompt in your environment, so maybe use a timer in the shower. I have a little sun timer provided by Thames water. Or you could do something like put a sticker on the washing machine, to remind you not to use some of the settings. For things to do with textiles, we know that an opportunity barrier is that people feel they don't really have the time to make repairs and alterations, even if they have the skills to do so. So maybe to overcome that providing a service that could do the repairs and alterations for you would help. And around energy efficiency, we know that people have a capability barrier in that they find the options really confusing, it's hard to just know what to do and what your home needs. So in those cases, something like an advice portal could be really helpful or even having a new role for someone like a "retrofit designer" who could be a person that would provide tailored advice to you and your household.

Katie - It is interesting and relevant, I think, that you mentioned cost because, you know, some of these changes don't cost any money and some of them can be very expensive.

Jo - Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really important that we recognise that different people face different barriers to making green choices and cost is a really major factor; particularly in some of the bigger carbon emissions saving things that we want people to do, like making major alterations to their homes. So it's really important that that's taken into account so that all changes are affordable and accessible to everyone.

Katie - In terms of policy, do we know what works in terms of encouraging people to make greener choices where that is possible?

Jo - Well, we know what doesn't work, which is just telling people what to do and why it's important. That's usually not enough because it addresses people's knowledge, that's sort of capability, but maybe not so much opportunity or motivation. So policies are most likely to work when they first look at what's preventing people from making green choices and then match up a suitable intervention. So for example, the carrier bag charge was really effective because it's removed the things that were probably prompting people to use plastic bags in supermarkets, which was just being offered it as a default option and it being free so really convenient. But there won't really be a one size fits all policy for achieving big targets like net zero, because like I said, people face different barriers to making green choices and so different types of solutions are needed. And it's really important that policies don't exacerbate the existing inequalities that already exist to disadvantage some people in the UK.

Katie - As you say, you know, we are all individuals and our living situations are unique. So how can we figure out what changes are most likely to make a difference in our own situation?

Jo - Yeah, so it can be really confusing, but luckily there are loads of tools and apps and websites now, which can help to understand where the biggest carbon savings can be made and what you personally can do. So one good one that I like is the Grantham Institute's list of nine things you can do about climate change. And some of the biggest impact actions are things like eating less meat and dairy, flying and using the car less, and of course, saving energy and water home. But I would say as well, once you've had a look at what to do, make an intention to do something about it. So put it in your diary or on your to-do list because forming a clear intention will help you to carry through on that action. And just as importantly as these individual actions, talk about what you're doing and don't be afraid to ask for help, because all of that helps to push this higher up on the agenda.


Add a comment