“There’s no point in refusing a plastic bag if you’re about to fly to Majorca”

Plenty of people are ready to live a more sustainable life, but reality often gets in the way: behavioural researcher Bettina Höchli from the University of Bern reveals why – and suggests ways of keeping those good intentions on track.

Text   Daniel Schriber


  • Sustainability

Bettina Höchli, for this interview we photographed you cycling to the University of Bern where you work. Hand on heart: Do you think about the environment before you decide how you’re going to travel?

(Laughs) Yes, I actually cycle from Hinterkappelen to Bern almost every day. It takes me around 25 minutes. But I don’t do it because I’m super environmentally aware.

Why then?

Simple: I just enjoy cycling to work. I like clearing my head in the morning and evening instead of having to sit in a packed bus. The fact that it’s a free, more sustainable option is nice – but it’s secondary in this case.

So sustainable behaviour should above all be enjoyable?

It definitely helps if you like what you’re doing. Car sharing’s a good example of this. Sharing a car’s a more sustainable than owning one, but that’s not usually the determining factor. The main reason why Mobility’s offering works so well is that it’s fuss-free, practical and socially acceptable.

How sustainable are you in other aspects of your life?

There’s definitely still room for improvement; my footprint’s clearly too big. I’ve set myself the goal of getting a little better every day in that respect. It would be unrealistic to want to completely change one’s life overnight.

Can you give specific examples of where you consciously choose more ecological options?

There are definitely aspects of my life where I find it easier. For example, I don’t have a car and I travel almost exclusively by bike and public transport. I don’t heat my apartment too much and I don’t buy lots of new clothes. I also take part in elections and vote for candidates who stand for sustainable development.

That sounds exemplary.

It’s not the case everywhere in my life. For instance, this year I flew despite my best intentions, because I found the prospect of looking after my child on a night train too daunting. I still eat meat, although I’m aware of its footprint. And since becoming the mother of a daughter two years ago, food waste has unfortunately become more of an issue.

Lots of people probably feel the same way. How can this be explained?

We humans are not rational beings. What psychologists call the “intention-behaviour gap” describes the phenomenon whereby we often have good intentions and are highly motivated – but then fail to translate these intentions into behaviour. Our habits play a key role here.

Can you give some examples?

Let’s take nutrition: I know the meals that I regularly cook, and I always buy the same products. However, if I decide to switch to cooking vegan or vegetarian, I have to move away from conventional meals and buy different products. This can be strenuous at first, or it slips my mind in the busyness of everyday life. So as a consequence – despite my best intentions – at the checkout, I find I’ve put the habitual products back in the shopping trolley. Social norms also contribute to our behaviour.

In what way?

If you go out for a meal and everyone chooses a meat dish, chances are you won’t want to be the odd one out. We’re also masters at finding excuses for why we don’t do something.

How come?

We often have the feeling that our travel choices are sustainable. We tend to overestimate certain behaviours. We give ourselves a pat on the back for not using plastic bags when shopping, but what use is that if we then fly to Majorca a couple of times a year? When it comes to change, we often start with things that we find easy. That’s great. But if we don’t go any further than that and just sit back, we’re not really doing anything sustainable.

That sounds sobering. What tangible changes can people make in their everyday lives to boost their sustainability?

You need to start by performing an audit of your habits and think about the changes you could make that really have an impact and that are realistic. You then need to make concrete plans and think about how to integrate your new habits into everyday life. The less effort this requires, the better. It also helps to have incentives.

What might a “concrete plan” look like?

Let’s stay with the example of the bicycle: prepare your bike the previous evening, make sure you have good rain protection and reward yourself with a tasty breakfast once you get to the office. This will give you additional motivation. It’s important to realise that the hurdles aren’t the same for everyone. Being without a car’s not a problem for me because I live somewhere that allows me to cycle to work and that’s well served by public transport. Of course, that doesn’t apply to everyone.

When is the ideal time to change one’s behaviour?

There are times in life when a lot changes anyway and existing habits are shaken up: moving home, arrival of a baby, a change of job. These are windows of opportunity to start new habits that are in line with our personal sustainability goals.

And how about New Year’s resolutions?

A New Year offers a good opportunity to adopt new behaviours. That said, before rushing to make a resolution, take time to think about what you want to achieve. This includes major questions such as “What kind of world do I want to live in?” followed by “How can I adapt my behaviour in the here-and-now to make it happen?”. Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s important to have a roadmap that’s as concrete as possible. Good luck!

Photos: Patrick Besch

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