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  • Rachel Cunio

The Role of Psychology in Sustainable Living

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

Hello there! I’m Rachel and I run the @lessrubbish_rach Instagram account (shameless self-promo)... I’ve just recently finished my psychology degree in Chester and have been interested in and documenting my journey into reducing waste for almost two years now. I’ve learnt A LOT along the way, most prominently, I switched to a fully vegan diet this January after being veggie for 5 years, which has been great and so much easier than I thought it would be.

For my dissertation, I interviewed people who live sustainably to delve deeper into the motivation behind living this way, despite all the struggles and challenges that people face in reducing waste. Not only did I meet some insanely inspirational people, I also found some really exciting things that I’d like to share and discuss with you. Obviously, I can’t share details for ethical reasons, but some interesting themes came out of these conversations that I’d love to discuss. As ever, I’d love to know what you think and what your opinions are on the subject… without further ado, let's dive in!

It me... Hello!! (Not from 1998, I promise- I would've been a few months old!!)

What is sustainable living?

The word sustainable means to be maintained at a certain rate or level, but if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re already well educated in climate change so I won’t dwell. Since climate change is a result of human behaviour, helping people to change their behaviour in order to become more sustainable could provide some answers to the current climate crisis. Incorporating behavioural changes into people's daily lives requires a little help from the field of psychology. Yet interestingly, very little has been done on this area at all...

A surprising insight that came up from my research was the impact of gender on sustainable living. Not only was this really interesting to me (I’ve grown up to be critical of these traditional roles) but it also tells us a lot about our own society. In my research, I found a lot of talk about “meat” being synonymous with “masculinity” which can prevent guys from reducing their animal consumption as part of a sustainable lifestyle. Yet in the same breath, vegan men justify their dietary choices by associating their diets with traditional male qualities, i.e. athleticism. Kinda interesting (and a bit disturbing?) how our society still holds to traditional gender norms.

Does this mean the only way we can promote veganism in the mainstream is by appealing to traditional values? For example, thinking of Quorn’s latest “Ultimate Burger” ad with its gripping action music and words like “heroic” and “epic” blast across the screen.

Can we expect to promote change fast enough if we cling to the normative structures of the past? Quorns’ multi-million pound marketing campaign seems to think so. What do you think? Obviously, these are trends and there’s no criticism here, I don’t think that anyone should “have” to act a certain way, equality doesn’t have roles so do what you damn will. It was just a really interesting observation that I found in my research.

Something that has gained a lot more attention since I started my dissertation is the understanding that sustainable living can impact mental wellbeing. The negative impacts I researched were mostly associated with burnout and awareness of issues that are beyond the control or capability of the individual. This leads to feelings of guilt and overwhelm, popularly coined “eco-anxiety” across social media. Whilst I think this term is good at highlighting the issues that people are facing, I choose to stick with “mental wellbeing,” because it's not all doom and gloom, I promise. Overwhelmingly, sustainable living is able to have a positive impact on people's wellbeing. Being able to identify an issue and then taking actions to combat and change the world for the better is extremely important to focus on, for our own mental wellbeing.

Simple changes add up!

What does all this mean? From my dissertation and research, I get the overwhelming feeling that we cannot rest. In Greta Thunberg’s own words “I don’t want your hope” but we must look beyond our bamboo toothbrushes and Quorn burgers and consider branching out into other areas of society that need change, to work together towards one common goal.

With the links between sustainable living and many other areas, we need to be aware of gender, equality, be inclusive and invite all people regardless of race, gender, orientation etc. into the conversation. Wealthy, white women have dominated this area but there are so many more voices that we must listen to who can provide us with valuable insight.

Oh, and let’s take care of ourselves shall we? As silly as it sounds, you can’t give from an empty pot (or mug, for you tea lovers) so take time to rest, make small changes to your lifestyle and CELEBRATE THEM for you are amazing and one step closer to saving the planet. You can't get more badass than that!

If you have made it this far, lovely reader, thank you for your support, if this is something you’re interested in hearing more about in the future be sure to check out my account @lessrubbish_rach on Instagram! I’d love to hear your views on this little piece and I’m always open to new ideas and learning.

One of my fave Low Waste purchases!