Climate change requires rapid and fundamental transformation of our society to change the way that resources like energy and water are used during everyday routines. However, unsustainable consumption proves surprisingly impervious to policies and interventions intended to reduce emissions, not least because taken-for-granted ways of living become ‘locked-in’ by cultural and material conditions of society. Here, Dr Claire Hoolohan outlines some of the ways COVID-19 has forced experimentation in our everyday routines, the effect this has had on sustainable practices, and how policymakers can seize the opportunity for positive action.
- COVID-19 has disrupted previously ‘locked-in’ practices, such as commuting, working, shopping and cooking
- In turn, this has created possibilities for different – potentially more sustainable – routines to arise and reduce resource use in the home
- Policymakers must ensure that as we adapt to living with COVID-19 sustainable routines are supported, consolidated and normalized, rather than pursuing a return to normal that resumes unsustainable practices
When a practice becomes ‘locked-in’, it means that people’s capacity to act in different ways is limited, despite perhaps understanding the implications of their actions and even hen supportive of change. Often, the cultural and material conditions in which routines are situated are satisfactory, which leads to little critical reflection. The more people that participate in unsustainable practices, and the more regularly they do so, the stronger the lock-in effect becomes.
In contrast, COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruption to everyday life, prompting a period of forced experimentation as people in all kinds of different situations adjust to new ways of living. The changes have been extensive, rapid, and unexpected – affecting the way we work, socialise, care for others, exercise and entertain ourselves.
Research from The University of Manchester, as part of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation, explores the impact of COVID-19 on the UK public’s lifestyles and routines, focusing on activities that have significant impacts on climate change (eg, travel, food, product consumption, and energy use). Unsurprisingly, the results show that people’s everyday routines have changed in many ways during this time, and some of these changes are to the benefit of sustainable consumption.
For example, we asked people about how their shopping, cooking and eating routines had changed. Respondents described how restrictions have led to more time at home and less spontaneity in cooking and eating. As a result, people are better able to keep track of what is in the fridge and what needs using, resulting in 35% of respondents reporting less food waste and an increase in waste-reducing practices like batch-cooking, freezing and preserving food.
There are also references to the idea that in a world with coronavirus, food waste equates to risk, as it means more journeys to the supermarket where people are concerned about transmission.
These findings signal the importance of systemic factors such as timetabling and scheduling, and wider trends that have become engrained throughout the 20th Century, like commuting. Several respondents described how their shopping habits had changed because they no longer travelled to and from work:
“Previously we would do small quick shopping trips every 1 or 2 days, to pick small stuff up at lunchtime or on the way home from work. We can’t do this anymore as we’re not in the office, so we’ve been doing one big shop and buying more to reduce the number of trips. We plan really carefully now so that we don’t waste anything, because going to the shop risks our health and the health of others.”
Here we see how shopping, meal planning and food waste become entangled in working and commuting, and how pre-COVID habits become unsettled as lockdown disrupted daily routines. These sorts of findings are interesting if we reflect on other emissions hotspots, like rush-hour and peak energy demand. Shifting the timing of energy demand provides a range of benefits, from reducing local air pollution to balancing the grid and enabling more widespread use of more intermittent forms of renewable energy.
Many of the common approaches taken to ‘time-shift’ routines focus on individual action – time-of-use tariffs and smart displays to encourage people to use energy ‘off-peak’. Yet few strategies are being rolled out to alter the broader time-space of daily routines. COVID-19 has given us a window to observe what happens when ordinary schedules – 9-5 work day, the school run, weekdays/weekends – are suspended. Working from home and having children out of school has done away with many of the more formal structures that people typically experience. And as a result, many respondents in this survey talk about how they’ve begun to experimenting with different ways of structuring their time.
For flexible workers who previously stuck to a 9-5 working day, the shift to working from home, often combined with a need to care for children, has led to great variety in how people are flexing their usual commitments – some taking longer days with breaks, or working earlier or later. There are also plenty of people describing how they switch between shorter, more concentrated ’shifts’ of work and childcare, alternating with their partner.
“As before, I usually work a 7-8 hour day, but now I usually take breaks amounting to 2-3 hours during the day, to do other activities, so I start earlier and work into the evening. I’ve found this more do-able than sitting for a 7-8 hour continuous stretch.”
This seemingly mundane resequencing of daily activities, if continued, could deliver the time-shift needed to redistribute peak energy demand. An important question then, is how, as a society, we can recover from coronavirus in a way that continues to allow space for the low-carbon habits that this survey has observed.
One line of enquiry is to reimagine employment, and potentially schooling, to benefit demand management and perhaps also wellbeing, given that people seem to appreciate having greater control over their time. For some years people have discussed the possibility that shorter working days and weeks might have benefits for sustainability and wellbeing. However, it has been difficult to gather the evidence of the impacts of such a change at a large scale and across different industries/communities. COVID-19 has forced that experimentation, and what we see in the results is that there does indeed appear to be evidence that supports the case for experimenting with different temporal rhythms.
However, it is important to recognise that for some people this time has been deeply difficult. People are concerned about their loss of productivity, they’re worried that they’re not able to do their best for dependents whilst also juggling work, and many have first-hand experience of coronavirus itself. If policy is to support experimentation with working hours, this needs to be done in an empathetic way that recognises different people’s situations and needs, and works to ensure this is an experience that does not benefit/disadvantage certain groups more than others.
Bold demand management measures are needed if the rapid and extensive reductions needed to limit the negative impacts of climate change are to be achieved. COVID-19 has forced extensive experimentation as people adapt everyday routines to new circumstances, and the early results from this research illustrate major implications of this experimentation for the ways in which resources such as water and energy are used, and how people eat and travel. Coronavirus has therefore created an important set of conditions within which to understand discontinuity in everyday practice at a large scale.
This research is undertaken as part of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation, seeking to understand from past and present examples how and why social transformation have occurred. More findings from this project can be read here. The research will be continued to understand the enduring impacts of lockdown on everyday routines, and to contribute to the Everyday Life in a Pandemic project, and international sociological study to explore the implications of COVID-19 on everyday practices around the world.
Dr Hoolohan has also recorded a short lecture on this subject, as part of the University’s COVID Catalysts campaign.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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