Graduate Research Analyst
While the cost of living is a key concern for Britons right now, climate concern still remains an important issue for the public. But with the cost of living crisis and widespread perceptions that green living is expensive, will the public see a trade-off between saving money and saving the planet as inevitable?
This is important for policymakers as the UK is legally bound to reach net zero by 2050 and there is a need for action at all levels of society to get us there. The good news for policymakers is that our data suggests that the two aims – saving money and saving the planet - do not have to be in conflict.
It appears that most of the cost saving actions the public plan to make in response to the cost of living crisis are also environmentally-friendly. And so, moments like this, when public motivations to make savings are high, can create opportunities to encourage greater sustainable behaviour change in future.
In this article we set out actions that policymakers and brand decision-makers can take based on our research evidence, to ensure the cost of living crisis does not turn into a crisis for sustainable living.
What’s important to the public?
The rise in the cost of living is creating hardship and anxiety for millions of households up and down the country. It has been and continues to be the most important issue of concern for the UK public in our Issues Index103. However, it is not the only thing worrying the public: "the environment, pollution and climate change" are also in the top five most important issues facing the UK today.
The public also feel a personal sense of responsibility to take climate action. Two thirds (66%) agree that if individuals like themselves do not act now to combat climate change, they will be failing future generations104.
Encouragingly, we have seen an uptick in likelihood to make sustainable behaviour changes, some of which can reduce the cost of living. For example, our 2022 Earth Day study shows Britons are more likely than in previous years to eat less meat (37% vs 26% in 2014) or dairy (34% vs 21% in 2014)105. These are some of the key steps to living more sustainably and can be good for the planet and the pocket, as alternatives such as pulses and fresh vegetables are often cheaper than animal products.
However, there is still a widespread perception that a greener lifestyle can be costly. Half in the UK (48%) would like to do more to reduce climate change and help the environment but say they cannot afford to. More people also believe greener lifestyle choices are more expensive than not (41% compared to 22%). Our Net Zero Living research shows that even prior to the cost of living crisis, the cost implications of net zero policies were a concern for the UK public to the extent that they affect policy support. For example, when we tested the policy of higher taxes on red meat and dairy, four in five (79%) were convinced by the argument that this would make these foods more expensive for everyone but only around half (46%) were convinced it would make vegetarian and vegan food options cheaper106.
Is the cost of living crisis changing the way the UK public think about sustainable living?
Changes to live more sustainably can be good for the pocket, and steps to manage the cost of living can have environmental co-benefits. This provides opportunities to tackle two of the nation’s key concerns at once. And our data supports this.
When asked what changes the UK public would make in response to the rise in the cost of living in the next 6 months, environmentally-friendly changes are top of the list.
Households most often plan to implement energy-saving measures, reflecting anxieties over energy bills going into the winter. Four in five (81%) would try to save energy at home, for example by turning off lights, gadgets and appliances when not in use, while seven in ten (70%) would use their heating just the amount they need to be comfortable. Reducing food waste (71%) and recreational consumption - shopping for fun (59%) are also in the top five actions.
Changes in how people get around are less popular. Only a third (36%) would walk or cycle more to reduce the amount spent on travel, while 15% of those who have access to a private vehicle would switch to public transport and 8% would take up car sharing. This is part of a wider trend seen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. By November 2021, rates of active travel and public transport use had not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels according to Sport England’s Active Lives survey107 and the Department for Transport’s All Change?108 study, both conducted by Ipsos.
One explanation for why transport-related changes are less popular could be because the people who are more likely to make lifestyle changes – specifically women, young people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds – were already using public transport or active travel before the rise in the costs of living, or have already recently made the switch.
What’s driving these changes in behaviours?
The changes we are seeing in people’s behaviours appear to be primarily financially motivated, but the environmental co-benefits come in a close second: seven in ten (71%) people who would make sustainable lifestyle changes in response to the rising cost of living say the most important reason is because it would save them or their household money; three quarters (75%) say being good for the environment or combatting climate change is an important reason for them, with over half (54%) saying it’s the most, or second most, important motivation.
Income plays a role in the public’s decisions too meaning messaging will need to be tailored to reflect this: saving on costs is a top reason for those struggling on their current income, while environmental benefits are a stronger motivator for those coping or living more comfortably.
Is there a trade-off and is it sustainable?
The UK public don’t necessarily think there needs to be a trade-off between saving money and saving the planet. The majority (58%) try to avoid lifestyle changes that harm the environment when they are trying to save money. However, there is clearly a tension: while two in five (40%) disagree with the statement ‘I am too worried about the cost of living to think about the impacts of climate change and the environment’, a similar proportion agrees (35%).
The cost of living crisis may be encouraging net zero friendly behaviour change now, but will people maintain these changes once the cost of living (hopefully) falls? Encouragingly, our research shows that the majority of people in the UK who would make sustainable behaviour changes are likely to keep them up after cost of living goes down. This is especially the case for those who would try to avoid food waste (91%) or save energy at home (90%). Using heating just enough to be comfortable (85%), eating a diet of mostly plants (84%), and taking up active travel (84%) are also in the top actions to be sustained beyond the cost of living crisis.
People are less likely to sustain greener consumption habits like not shopping for fun (74%) or buying second-hand (83%), taking public transport (79%) or changing cooking methods (80%) when compared to the other changes, but, even so, they would still be kept up by most of the people who intend to make them.
What does all of this mean for communications and behaviour change?
To ignore the seemingly persistent narrative that it’s expensive being green would be a mistake. However, it is also true that the changes individuals intend to make to their lives in response to the rising cost of living are smaller in terms of the overall environmental benefits. In reality, what we really need to meet our net zero goals is for the UK public to also move towards making some of the bigger shifts such as changing to a plant-based diet, making energy efficiency improvements to their homes, or switching to low carbon heating.
To meet these needs and help ensure the cost of living crisis does not turn into a crisis for sustainable living, Government and businesses can support impactful sustainable behaviour change in three key ways:
First, be open about the personal financial implications of some planet friendly behaviour changes, while acting to minimise the cost of these as far as possible. Our Net Zero Living research shows policy and brand decision-makers need to understand the public’s valid concerns about the personal cost to them. This means they must be open and honest about any significant financial costs to individuals when positioning solutions – for example, being transparent about the upfront cost of installing a heat pump. In addition, they can also play an important role in minimising the costs of living sustainably, such as by subsidising electric vehicles or making plant-based food options cheaper and accessible. The Government is doing some if this already, such as the Boiler Upgrade Scheme which provides grants of £5,000- £6,000 from now until 2025 to help property owners install low-carbon heating systems like heat pumps, but there is clearly a need for more if we are to meet our net zero commitments.
Second, emphasise the wider co-benefits of action. This includes the existing, immediate cost savings people can make – like walking or cycling for free instead of spending money on petrol for shorter journeys – and the potential for future savings on essentials like energy through bigger actions like making energy efficiency improvements to their home. This is particularly important where people are less familiar with the co-benefit to their finances and to the environment of actions such as switching to a plant-based diet.
What our research also shows is that moments such as the current cost of living crisis and broader motivations for change – such as saving money – can create opportunities for policymakers to encourage greater sustainable behaviour change in the future. Look, for example, at people who say they would like to do more to reduce climate change and help the environment but can’t afford to. Almost all of these people (97%) intend to make an environmentally friendly lifestyle change in the face of the rising cost of living. Yet this is with a view to saving money, not necessarily the planet. These people show higher intentions to make simpler and more obvious cost-saving changes such as avoiding food waste, reducing the amount of energy they use for heating, and switching to greener consumption patterns. This indicates that talking about cost saving, rather than just the environmental implication, could be an important pathway to kickstart sustainable behaviour change and help towards our net zero targets.
Third, while we know people say they are likely to maintain these changes, policymakers and brand decision-makers should consider the motivations for and barriers to keeping up green behaviour change. Some changes are one-off actions – such as better insulating your home – which can boost adoption. Yet others, like dietary changes, require ongoing commitment to action. Much of our behaviour is habitual so enabling people to easily – or better, automatically – make greener choices is important. For example, vegan and vegetarian food could be the default option in public catering, a move made recently by Oxfordshire County Council who are exploring rolling this out further to schools. Such actions can deeply shift behaviour change through (more-or-less) automatic opt-in and help to normalise greener choices.
Ultimately, the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis are both important challenges facing the UK today and our research shows that we do not necessarily need to choose between them in terms of priority. That’s because a green lifestyle can benefit both our pockets and our planet, which helps us tackle two problems for the price of one. That is a saving worth making.
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