the trace journal

stories of sustainability, changemaking and collective power, through the lens of the fashion industry

On the sustainability conundrum, cognitive dissonance and the power of small, incremental changes

Yesterday, 29 of July, was Earth Overshoot Day for 2019. What this means is that, from then onward, we are leaving beyond our planet’s resources. To put it in different words, we have now used all the resources that the Earth would be able to regenerate in a year. And this number vastly underestimates the damage that we are doing in the planet, as it does not take into account factors as soil degradation, water pollution, or mass species loss.

And here is yet another number: our remaining carbon dioxide budget in order to have a 67% chance of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees. As of January 1st, 2018, this was 420 gigatons of carbon dioxide. We emit about 42 gigatons of CO2 every year. At current emissions levels, our budget will be gone within 8 and a half years. This is the data that was presented in the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was accepted and signed by all nations. Here is an incredible video of Greta Thunberg talking about this last Tuesday at the French National Assembly, and calling for governmental action:

Now, this is not yet another article telling you all the things that are wrong and scary today. The reason why we start sharing those two data points is because they become highly relevant for the discussion that we want to kick off, which is that our consumption habits are not sustainable, and that while global leaders and corporations move out of their state of general inaction, it is our time as consumers to step up to the challenge and lead the way to change. The article today is about the science behind why are we not doing that, and how to get started. It is about elevating progress and not perfection, and about the magic of making small incremental changes.

On the sustainability conundrum, and the behavioural gap that makes it all so complicated:

So let us start at the beginning. What do we mean by sustainability conundrum?

Conundrum: a confusing or difficult problem or question.

We cannot think of a better word to describe how most people see sustainability today. The truth is, we are well aware that there is just too much information out there, sometimes overlapping, sometimes slightly contradictory. This abundance of information and data, paired with the sheer magnitude of the challenge that we, as a global society, are facing, often moves us consumers into a state of inaction. Many of us feel that there is just too much we are doing wrong, and it feels too daunting of a task to completely change all our habits. Studies consistently prove that the more we are aware of the issues at stake, the harder we find it to actually live out our values. So we step back and choose to watch from the sidelines.

This paradox is called cognitive dissonance, and explains so much of why we continuously make choices that seem to jeopardise our very future existence. Cognitive dissonance refers to the tension that arises when our actions do not match our beliefs, or in situations where we are confronted with information that contradicts our beliefs. When this cognitive dissonance is not addressed – and we will be talking about how to address it – we have as an outcome an attitude-behaviour gap in consumers. A clear example of that: surveys across the world consistently show that between 30 and 50% of consumers share that they want to buy sustainable products. Sounds awesome, right? Well, don't get too excited - the actual market share of these goods is often less than 5%.

Across the board, consumer behaviour is the most unstable and unpredictable part supply chains. And that is because we humans are wonderfully complicated creatures. The decisions that shape our consumer habits are not made in a vacuum. They are made within cultural, social, economic and political contexts that constrain our ability to change behaviours. And, more importantly, they are often arising from well entrenched habits, which help us automate decision-making and save valuable energy.

On the right way to deal with cognitive dissonance:

This is why often “push initiatives” as we like to call them (government policies aimed at changing consumer behaviour) are the quick way to help us collectively change our habits. And that is why campaigning is and should remain a core part of social justice and environmental movements. However, while those policies and incentives come in place we as humans are left to deal with this cognitive dissonance, which we experience in many other areas besides our consumer habits, on our own. In practice there are four different ways we can deal with it:

  1. Negation: we just pretend there is no conflict, and avoid it.

  2. Diversion: we acknowledge the conflict, but avoid ownership and responsibility.

  3. Change of thoughts, so our actions no longer conflict with our thoughts.

  4. Change of actions, so they align with our thoughts and values.

We see friends, family and ourselves often taking the first 3 routes. A common diversion strategy for instance is listing the reasons why it is difficult to make changes, like organic products being more expensive, having difficulties finding plastic free products, or claiming that it is the government's responsibility to take proactive action. All of those statements may be true, but none takes away the fact that today we have the means to make better choices in the current environment. They are not the easiest choices, but they are the better choices, and we are not making them.

Negation is particularly frequent in the fashion industry – the brutal impacts of fast fashion, which additionally is an unnecessary good (we all need to buy food constantly, but not fashion), make most of us just want to look away and avoid getting the right information. Change of thoughts is common particularly among older generations, where habits are more entrenched and it is easier to find strategies to debunk data than to sit in the discomfort of a clash between actions and beliefs.

So, how do we make sure we take the fourth route, that of changing our actions so they align with our beliefs, when there is so much that prevents us from doing so? What even are the actions we need to change, in a context where it feels like so many of the habits that underpin our daily lives will need a radical shake up? Well, that is where small, incremental changes come in.

Our guide to small, incremental changes to lead a happy life:

At Trace Collective we believe that the key to successful change is engaging in a process of slow, guilt free evaluation of your daily routines, and starting to take small, positive steps. Why? Because making just one change is easy, it is accessible to all. And, more importantly, it is empowering, and it allows us to want to take more steps in the right direction. A lot of you have been asking us about our own journeys on sustainability, and that is something we will be writing about very soon. But today we wanted to take it away from the personal, and give some general tips that hopefully you can take as initial inspiration. So here is how a journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle can look like for you. Pens out!

Say you want to reduce your meat, fish and dairy consumption, and you choose to try going vegan 3 days a week. After a 1 month, you will have developed a habit. After a month, you will also have saved roughly 140 kg of CO2, 42 sq metres (457 sq feet) of forest (remember animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation) and 76,000 litres of water. You will probably be healthier, have more energy, and have had loads of fun trying new recipes. This is such a small change with such a huge impact. 25% of global CO2 emissions come from the food industry, and animal products are responsible for roughly 60% of those.

We have prepared a little starter kit if you choose to go this way. This calculator will make you very proud of how much you are contributing, the accuracy of this BBC article where you get impact savings per food product will help you know what the most strategic changes are, and Deliciously Ella will fill your live with yummy recipes that will have you wondering what on earth have you been eating all your life. She also has a great app!

Now that you have mastered your first change, maybe you want to take another step. That can be more days of plant-based diet. Or it could be reducing plastics. Browse around to look for plastic free options, there will be many. If you are in London, our tip is to avoid supermarkets like the pest, and go for a combination of local shops and plastic free shops. This awesome website is a great resource for Londoners, and if you are in Spain you are lucky, this incredible app just launched.

By then you will probably want to do more, and you can do some surveying of your bathroom products to continue reducing plastics, detox your cleaning cabinet, or start exploring the wonderful world of pre-loved clothing. Or take some steps into expanding change beyond your daily habits, and try to cascade it down by asking your company to ditch those horrendous plastic cups and cutlery. It is incredible how willing people are to make changes if asked nicely. If they say no, do not be discouraged, ask the whys, understand the systemic constrains, and try in a different way, or try elsewhere.

Obviously, you can also swap the order of these changes. Start with whatever is easier, stick to it. We like to suggest food as an entry point because it has health benefits, offers a great opportunity to learn and have fun exploring new recipes, and it is an area where we all drive demand daily, which means it is a very rewarding first step to take. We all eat every day, and buy some food almost every day, but not many people buy clothes daily or even weekly. If you are one of those who does, maybe start with your fashion choices instead.

Whatever you choose as your first action, set yourself up for success. Find a buddy who will do this with you (a coerced romantic partner, or a reluctant close friend are always great go-tos) or share what you are doing with somebody and ask them to hold you accountable. You may be surprised of the result, unwillingly you might inspire some to follow your lead. And when you have made that one change, choose a next thing. Make it fun. Keep reading, keep learning, keep experimenting. Some great news – there is proof that environmentally friendly behaviours spill over from one area to another really easily, building consistent consumption habits through the board. So, truly, it is just about getting started.

We have found that there is nothing more powerful than aligning your actions with your values. And that our individual power to change things is so immense. But more than anything, we have found how incredibly empowering it is to just realise about this, to understand how much change you can create easily and to connect with a deeper sense of purpose.

We leave you with this last blog post from Eco Warrior Princess with the best climate news of the week. And do not be fooled, all these changes were led and triggered by individuals just like you. Join the movement, the time is now.

To write this article, we read...

  • A great paper on the attitude-behaviour gap, and how Denmark addressed it effectively to get at the head of organic food market share globally. The link is here, it is technical but an easy enough read if you are curious to learn more!

  • A beautifully written article on cognitive dissonance in conservation, written by non profit organisation Root Solutions. Check it out here.

  • A great read by The Conversation on information overload, which gave us the original inspiration to develop this article. Link here!

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