Taking a personal sustainability challenge
Katy Appleton is an academic member of UEA’s Sustainability Champion network. A lecturer in Environmental Sciences, she is interested in the small steps we can take to reduce our own environmental impact and thinks here about how the idea of giving up can be harnessed for positive effect. Could you give a month to change… yourself? the world?
Small steps towards bigger change:
How short-term personal challenges could lead to a more sustainable lifestyle
It seems that giving things up has never been so in fashion. Currently we are partway through Lent, which for many people is associated with giving up a particular vice or pleasure for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. In recent times this period of reflection and abstinence has been adopted by many who would not consider themselves religious, but either make a personal commitment, pledge publicly or challenge friends to join them in giving up something for six weeks or so.
This time period could be one of the keys to the idea’s wider success. A fixed length of time, long enough to be a challenge but short enough to feel possible; unlike New Year’s Resolutions, a fixed end date where you can claim success is a more motivating and achievable goal than permanently altering your lifestyle. That said, for some the weeks might serve as an eye-opener, a trial run that leads to ongoing change, although it seems that a little longer can be needed for the change to truly become a habit. Taking place in the spring also perhaps taps into the common themes of cleansing and renewal associated with the season of new growth.
Such abstinence is usually done for self-improvement, often giving up substances or habits detrimental to your health or wellbeing: chocolate, alcohol, smoking or even social media. This idea has been increasingly adopted by charities, with Alcohol Concern’s Dry January, British Heart Foundation’s Dechox, and now Cancer Research’s Month Off March (and previously Dryathlon) all challenging people to abstain from something for a month and collect sponsorship for doing so.
But how about turning around the benefits from being purely personal to helping the environment and wider society? Veganuary could be said to bridge that gap, with both personal and environmental benefits attributed to a diet low in animal products, and the initiative to go vegan for a month has gone from around 3,000 participants in 2014 to an estimated 50,000 this year. But other ideas focus more clearly on environmentally conscious behaviour.
The Marine Conservation Society’s month-long Plastics Challenge in June aims to both draw attention to, and reduce, the problem of plastic waste in our oceans and on our beaches. It recognises that living a plastic-free life is almost impossible, but encourages people to minimise consumption of single-use plastics. In a similar vein, UK waste blogger Gai has taken up a Lent plastic challenge from Bristol’s City to Sea group, and is needless to say blogging her experiences and tips as she goes.
General waste is another area ripe for abstinence if you’re looking to be more sustainable. As well as Gai’s blog there are the queens of Zero Waste in the UK, Karen Cannard of The Rubbish Diet and Mrs Green of My Zero Waste. The Zero Waste event tends to be a week (in September) rather than a month, and the level of difficulty depends heavily on what materials are recycled in your area, but as a focus for you to find different options (who sells unwrapped celery?) and creative solutions (how can I reduce food waste?), it’s a great start.
Other eco-friendly options could include a month of giving up your car, avoiding bottled water, reducing your carbon footprint (with a small but established movement of Carbon Fasting for Lent itself), or buying nothing new. An interesting twist on the common theme of giving up chocolate or coffee is to give up non-Fairtrade options. However, you might want to wait until later in the year before giving up non-local or non-seasonal food!
One very practical consideration is what happens at the end of your chosen time. Easter Sunday has come to have a firm association with chocolate, and lots of it, and for some people the period of giving up ends quite clearly then in a bit of a sugar-induced stupor! Clearly with sustainability-focused new habits the hope is that you will continue them, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Every little helps, so perhaps going from zero waste to just one small bag a week, or from no car at all to a restricted mileage. Huge impacts are possible from small changes, if they are made by lots of people.