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  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

A story of recycling, privilege and social class in behaviour change

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

This is a story about a kitchen bin, privilege and how our unconscious class blinkers can bias the way we think about behaviour change.

Privilege as the absence of inconvenience has been on my mind recently as I’ve immersed myself in Stephanie Land’s Maid and her experience of living in poverty: poorly paid work, ruthless working conditions, humiliating requirements for government aid with a side dish of domestic violence and homelessness. One of Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2019, it’s a deeply insightful glimpse into a vastly different life to mine and important perspective for my professional work as an applied behavioural science practitioner.

But first, let’s talk about recycling bins.

A rubbish start

As I folded away a small cardboard box and put it into the recycling drawer of our new kitchen bin, I made a comment to my husband about how much easier recycling was now that we had this miraculous thing, and how much tidier our kitchen was. Before buying it, we used bags-for-life to store recycling which made our kitchen look messy — although we did mostly recycle and collect kitchen waste, the friction created by the “solution” made it tempting to just bin things.

The catch is that the solution to removing this friction cost us 160 euros(GBP150/USD190). We hesitated buying the bin for a year, because who spends that much money on a bin and there was always something better to spend it on than, well, a rubbish storage solution.

Even at this stage of our lives when my husband and I are finally reasonably comfortable, it was a big spend. I thought back to the early days of my former company when I was always worried about money and the first few years of my career when my salary was barely enough to cover London living costs… spending half of my monthly food budget on a bin was simply unimaginable.

As I sipped my morning coffee, I started to think about the role of money in sustainable behaviour change. I wondered just how much class bias there might be in our profession, so I did what comes naturally to me: research.

Money, money, money

The average salary in 2019 was £30,420 a year with a weekly take-home pay of £585. Age and location create variation and the average is pulled up by those who are doing much better financially: the average of the Top 3 occupation groups is 30% higher than the national average, and 52% higher than the average of the Bottom 3 groups.

Note: the groups were averaged to simplify the discussion — the middle and bottom groups are more homogeneous, and although not all of us in this field will be in the A group, the average should be enough for illustration.

As I dug deeper into the Office of National Statistics data, I learned that most of us working in applied behavioural science or related fields are in that Top 3 group, and more specifically in occupation group B which makes up 21% of UK workers which leaves 68% of the workforce earning less (charts at the end of the post). Most importantly, on average the group our various professions belong to earn 32% more than the national average.

That’s more than enough to buy a fancy bin for recycling, with some left over for buying organic produce and eco-friendly laundry detergent.

Back to the bin

Our lived experience gives us a certain set of lenses view the world with and even if we’ve been through less fortunate times in the past, our memory is patchy so it’s only human to forget about it once the situation improves.

I thought about three of my former rental homes in London, all of which were tiny with nowhere to store recycling. In many areas you need to put your recycling out in a plastic bag, which in practice means you have a bright orange bag full of rubbish adorning the corner of your kitchen at all times.

A lot of behaviour change discourse especially in articles about sustainability* revolves around overcoming the intention-action gap and framing the challenge in psychological terms. This morning reminded me of the invisible yet powerful barriers that can exist in that gap, ones that we’d rather not even think about let alone admit when someone asks us about our green intentions. The lack of those barriers in our own lives can also lead us to subtly judge others who are not living up to the same standards, maybe even perceiving them as… irrational.

When our own living circumstances lack certain inconveniences, it’s much harder to imagine them as potential barriers let alone consider them when we think about solutions — of course, the problem must be psychological and we need to create an intervention. Many behaviour change frameworks and mnemonics reflect the tacit assumptions of their creators and depending on which one you use, you might forget to consider what the COM-B model defines “Physical Opportunity” provided by the environment (e.g. time, location and resources).

One recent example of how our class blinkers can bias our assumptions of barriers to “better” behaviours has been evident in the discussion about behaviour change in times of COVID-19.

Corona and the “opportunity from disruption”

I have read numerous articles on how the disruption from COVID-19 is an opportunity to “nudge” consumers towards a more sustainable future, many of them from a very middle-class perspective. Here’s one to illustrate the “opportunity in disruption of habits” content stream:

Discontinuity is abundant in times of coronavirus. Many of the cues in our environment that usually prompt our habitual responses are missing. The largely automatic process of getting ready to head out for work, initially cued by our alarm, is displaced. Similarly, a colleague who would usually pop past for a chat in the morning is only around virtually, eliminating the usual catch-up and tea break. This is both stressful and tiring, but it is also an opportunity to reimagine ourselves. (Source)

Life has indeed changed but not for everyone — and certainly not to the same degree. Some people’s experience resembles the above passage but it’s mostly about those of us who would normally work in an office because many others have continued to work as usual. A lot of people have also lost their jobs — sustainability will be the last thing on their minds because, much like our new kitchen bin, it has suddenly become a luxury they can’t afford.

Always start by checking your privilege

“Privilege is a hard concept for people to understand because normally when we talk about privilege we imagine unearned riches and tangible benefits for anyone who has it. Privilege is actually more about the absence of inconvenience, the absence of an impediment or challenge, and as such, when you have it, you really don’t notice it. But when it’s absent, it affects everything you do.” (John Amaechi, BBC Bitesize )

When I lived in London, it was difficult to recycle food waste and recycling was another hassle in an already busy, stressful life — especially in a small flat and without a car.

In contrast, my near-frictionless recycling luxury now includes a fancy kitchen bin, a garden compost and a car that allows me to dispose of recycling as often as I want to — it is merely a matter of self-discipline to do it. It might have only been a few years since I shared my small London flat with an orange recycling bag, but it’s a memory I keenly purged as soon as I could. Unlike my younger self, I can now also afford more eco-friendly products and generally close the intention-action gap more effectively by reducing friction for behaviours that align with my values.

Stephanie Land’s stories of living on a budget that could break from even the slightest unexpected cost were eye-opening and, to be honest, humbling. The beautiful houses in our town with sports cars in their driveways encourage upwards comparison and sometimes fool me into thinking my life is actually very modest when in fact I live a life full of invisible privileges.

It’s hard to imagine a life you do not live which is why it’s crucial to start any behaviour change project with a thorough analysis of the context with a framework like COM-B to reduce the blind spots arising from our personal experience — even if they are barriers you cannot influence.

Most importantly, before we attempt to change anyone else’s behaviour we need to start by checking our own privilege.

*N.B. I’m not an expert in sustainability — I’m simply using this topic as an illustration.

Additional charts:

Percentage of occupation group — UK workers


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