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Chicken or Egg: Does Happiness Lead to Sustainable Lifestyles, or Vice Versa?

Markus Terho | Image credit: Longfei Wang/Sustainable Brands

What better way to kick off Sustainable Brands ‘17 Copenhagen than to explore the personal motivations behind changing consumer behaviours in favour of society and planet?

In a deep-dive, research-based roundtable session, Markus Terho and Sari Laine from the Finnish Innovation Fund (Sitra) presented the findings of a new, nationally representative survey of sustainability attitudes and everyday practices of people living and working in Finland. In the drive to convince consumers to be more responsible in how they live their lives, there has so far been a temptation to focus on what they must forgo in search of impact minimisation, rather than the value that can be created.

“It is not just the duty of companies, countries and governments, but also individuals to change their ways,” Tehro said. “But that has to be tied to the idea of the ‘good life,’ not just about giving up or minimising impact.”

For him, the research offers growing evidence that it is possible to live a ‘good life’ within the boundaries of one planet.

Give them viable alternatives

The Sitra research is deep and intensive, forming part of Finland’s response to a national mission: to succeed in the world by becoming a pioneer of sustainable wellbeing and promoting systemic change. A country of 5.5 million, the average personal carbon footprint of its citizens is lower than many Western nations, at around 8,700kg CO2 equivalent. Sticking to the Paris Agreement, the country must reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

Instead of trying to change people’s behaviours by telling them what to do, Tehro says the key is giving people viable alternatives. Should individuals make positive changes to the way they live, play, work and move around, GHGs could be reduced by between 37 and 73 percent, he says.

If each individual took five actions – buying renewables electricity; walking or cycling to work instead of driving; spending one week of their vacation time at home, rather than flying somewhere; eating no meat or going vegan for a 30-day period; and giving only gifts that are useful – GHGs could be reduced by 14 percent, according to the analysis.

Additional steps – ex: installing an air heat pump at home; commuting to work on an electric bike; and investing in sustainable investment funds – could bring an additional reduction of some 21 percent. Even simple things – such as avoiding plastic bag use, carrying your own water bottle or changing your lightbulbs to LEDs – can drop GHGs a further 6.5 percent.

Four distinct groups

Of course, not all Finns (or any other nationalities, for that matter) possess the same motivations for making changes to their lives. And that is the core objective of Sitra’s work; by understanding the key drivers for change for different groups of consumers, brands and governments can orchestrate their messaging to have the best environmental and social outcomes.

The research found four distinct groups of Finn consumers:

  • 21 percent are ‘conscious citizens’ (always actively looking to consume less, favoring healthy and Fairtrade foods);
  • 25 percent are ‘energy conscious’ (keen to cut their bills down, but still likely to eat red meat and don’t believe they should consume less because other people do not bother);
  • 30 percent are ‘responsible and active’ (largely hippie metropolitans that have ditched the car and are into responsible consumption);
  • and 30 percent are ‘mobile opportunists’ (non-car owners, living in apartments, paying attention to issues such as food waste).

“What we found to be most interesting was the fact that there is a really strong correlation between the ‘good life’ and living a sustainable lifestyle; when people feel satisfied with their life, they live in a sustainable manner,” Tehro said. “What comes first – that they are happy in life so they then consider a sustainable lifestyle, or vice versa – we don’t know. The University of Helsinki will be doing some longer-term research to find out.”

A sense of belonging, recognising adequacy, a feeling of achievement and understanding that buying more stuff will not lead to happiness are all contributing factors.

From hedonists to impulse buyers

To aid further thinking on the subject, the research delved deeper, hearing from 1,000 respondents to throw up a series of more specific profiles of consumers – from the ‘comfort-seeking hedonist’ (the target for Tesla, more interested in style and design than money-saving) and the ‘impulse buyer’ (constantly looking for bargains and ‘must have’ items), to the ‘traditional voice of reason’ (the category most common-sense-loving Finns fall into) and the ‘resourceful eco warrior’ (reducing consumption and doing so rationally, based on facts).

Putting their immediate learnings into practice, the room of delegates was asked to consider how they might sell a range of items to certain segments. The group developing ideas for selling solar panels to the ‘comfort-seeking hedonists,’ for example, decided it might be a good idea to develop a service offering (taking the stress out of complicated installation and maintenance) or even team up with a design brand to add a bit of bling to what has traditionally been a fairly conservative market. A Swarovski Solar Panel, anyone?

Taking it mainstream

To conclude, Tehro and Laine explored the motivations and buying habits of “leading-edge consumers” and how likely these might translate to the wider population. Deep research, the findings of which can be found in The Changing Relationship Between People and Goods, offers an insight into how people are starting to think differently about physical goods.

As Tehro explained: “These leading consumers present brands with four mass-market opportunities to fulfil consumer needs that might appear to be contradictory.” They want to create a better them, as well as a better world. They want products to be stable and enduring, while also offering mobility and flexibility.

Is it possible? Well, Tehro pointed to the likes of Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative (every patch on a garment is a memory, every tear has a tale to tell, and every scratch on a jacket makes it new again), Levi’s (whose functional pants are just as appropriate on the cycle commute as they are in the office) and Dyson (whose vacuum cleaners will last longer than the competition’s) as evidence that it can be done.

Clearly, consumer relationships with products and services are changing, and positive environmental and social outcomes are more prevalent than ever before – not necessarily by tagging new products and services as being better for people or planet, but as being better for individuals who want to embrace 'the good life.'


Tom Idle is a writer, journalist, editor and commentator in the field of corporate sustainability, climate change policy, environmental protection, clean energy and corporate social responsibility. He is the former editor-in-chief at 2degrees network, the world's largest community for sustainable… [Read more about Tom Idle]


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