Why our individual choices matter

Posted in: Consumers, Food, Sustainability

What’s the point of Veganuary? Do the changes we make as individuals have any impact on the world around us? Tom Mansell, PhD student at the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath School of Management, argues that individual actions can have a wider effect than we might think.

 

At the beginning of the New Year many people try to make changes in their lives. It could be doing more exercise, learning a new language, or any number of things that benefit themselves or others around them.

 

Sustainable behaviour change

My research focuses on sustainable behaviour change – in other words the changes we can make that will have a positive impact on the environment. Switching to a vegan diet is said to be one of the most significant behaviours an individual can undertake to reduce their carbon footprint.

Each January we see a year on year increase of people taking part in Veganuary, (whereby people attempt to follow a vegan diet for the month of January). There has also been a significant increase in people taking up veganism full time. And while it’s probably not the case that all the people taking up meat-free diets are driven solely by environmental concerns, it is certainly one motivation. Interesting too has been the backlash to this creeping veganisation, including much ado about a vegan sausage roll, showing that even small changes can polarise our society in opinion.

Can individuals make a difference?

Beyond the current media noise around the subject, however,  there is an important discussion to be had about whether individual behaviour changes such as becoming vegan are part of the solution to the manifold environmental problems we currently face. Some argue that individual behaviour change to combat environmental destruction is largely pointless, claiming that it distracts us from bigger, systemic problems.

The argument broadly goes that until governments and big business make significant changes to limit environmental destruction, any individual behaviour changes are just a drop in the ocean. Moreover we are falling victim (as individuals) to having the blame put on ‘us’ and our actions rather than those who have the real power to make change. It’s an argument that is of course correct in many ways - we will certainly not be able to combat environmental problems such as climate change without significant changes in the way that governments and businesses currently legislate and operate. I, however, contest the conclusion that this means individual behaviour change is a pointless exercise, and the rise of Veganuary and veganism I think shows this quite well.

 

Social influence

When we talk of individuals making behaviour changes, we must remember that our behaviour is not isolated; we do not (often) act alone. When a person goes vegan, the decision doesn’t just effect that person alone, it will to a greater or lesser extent have an impact on family, friends and colleagues around them. Whether it is a parent frantically googling vegan recipes for an upcoming visit, or colleagues suddenly showing grave concern for your protein intake as you eat your meatless lunch at work: individuals making changes can impact the attitudes, ideas and potentially behaviours of others around us.

Theories of social influence tell us that our behaviours are highly influenced by what others around us are doing, particularly by those people that we share close relationships with such as friends and family. For example, social norm theory tells us that an individual’s behaviour is influenced not only by what they perceive others are doing, but also by what they think others will approve of them doing. This means that by changing your own behaviour, you could be part of instigating other changes around you.

And we can start to see the changes that individuals’ behaviour is bringing about in business and government. The Greggs vegan sausage roll may have been a subject of some mockery and outrage, yet it is a clear example of a large business responding to what is a growing market segment (the vegan consumer). Reactions by supermarkets such as new meat free food ranges by Marks & Spencerand dedicated vegan sections in Waitrose, show that if we as individuals choose to act in increasing numbers on sustainability issues, businesses do start to follow.

Wider impacts

So for this reason, I strongly encourage all of those who are trying something new this year to help the environment, whether it be going vegan for the month, starting to cycle to work or trying to use less plastic. And beyond your own behaviour, remember to take an interest in and encourage those making behaviour changes around you. The changes you choose to take may seem small and insignificant in isolation, but it's quite possible for your actions to have an impact that goes far beyond you.

Header image by Kevin McCutcheon on Unsplash

Posted in: Consumers, Food, Sustainability

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