Saying and doing are two different things

COLUMN

18 January 2022

Onlineshopping on smartphone.

We live in what can be described as a consumption culture where, in simple terms, the market produces strong social norms, writes Katarina Graffman.

COLUMN. While more and more people say Yes and Amen when you ask them about the importance of living in a more environmentally conscious and sustainable way, few actually change their behaviour, writes Katarina Graffman, PhD in cultural anthropology.

Katarina Graffman
Katarina Graffman, PhD in cultural anthropology.
Photo: Rebecca Gustafsson

In recent years, people have become significantly more aware of what sustainability is – although the word itself has been watered down to a large extent – and why it is needed. Attitude survey upon attitude survey has shown the same thing: an increased awareness and everyone rejoicing. “You see! People think it’s really important”… Then comes: “But why on Earth are they continuing to live so unsustainably…?”. While more and more people say Yes and Amen when you ask them about the importance of living in a more environmentally conscious and sustainable way, few actually change their behaviour.

We think that what people say provides some kind of template for how they will behave in the future. But there is very little evidence that their attitudes are a particularly good indicator of how a person will behave in the future. People say one thing, but do something entirely different.

We live in a time of extreme focus on the individual and blind faith in individual freedom. This also means that we make unreasonable demands of people. What would happen if we were to focus more on culture, that is, the social contexts in which individuals find themselves? How does it affect us to be part of the herd, where we do as others in our surroundings do, rather than always being those sensible individuals who act on facts and information?

Take consumption, for example. Of the sustainable development goals in Agenda 2030, Goal 12 – Responsible consumption and production – is one of the most difficult to achieve. Why? Because it places such high demands on the individual being able to critically examine, systematise and summarise information and act on this information. The problem is that the information is far too multifaceted, complex and contradictory. Good will and information about the state of things are not enough (just think about whether people would pay tax voluntarily if the taxation system were based on good will).

Today, we regard consumption as an individual act and an individual conscience. But is that actually the case? We-ell, we live in what can be described as a consumption culture where, in simple terms, the market produces strong social norms – in other words norms that regulate how we see ourselves in relation to others. In this kind of culture, it is difficult to try to inform or persuade consumers to consume fewer and only sustainable products for the sake of the climate or the environment by voluntary means. In the cultural context in which we are born and live, we have both opportunities and limitations. No matter what we say we think is important.

Understanding cultures and cultural practices means going beyond the data, because there is more data around than ever before. We need to make meaning out of all that data; that is what insight is all about. We cannot use data as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination, to borrow from Alfred Edward Housman’s saying. We need to understand human needs shaped by their cultural context, not just people’s desires and attitudes, in order to be able to move from words to action.

Katarina Graffman, affiliated researcher at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology

Last modified: 2021-02-14