Modes of transportation and water and energy consumption are points of attention for researchers Antonia Krefeld-Schwalb and Sebastian Gabel. ‘How many minutes do you shower daily?’ and ‘How do you travel during summer or when you head home for Christmas?’ are questions they are asking students.

Attitude-behaviour gap

Most students at EUR indicate being worried about climate change and are willing to change their behaviour. But there is an attitude-behaviour gap: two-thirds of all consumers want to act more sustainably but fail to do so, follows from an earlier study.

Krefeld-Schwalb: “The majority of RSM students (81 per cent) indicate that most or even all of their meals contain meat, irrespective of whether students think they could improve their food choices.”

Commuting to campus

“20 per cent of the first year RSM students who participated in our survey have used their car for commuting to university.” Krefeld-Schwalb was really surprised when she learned this. “With good public transport and the culture of cycling in the Netherlands, it was unbelievable that students still rely on cars.” The main reason to use a car is whether the students have a car easily available. This often meant that students still live with their parents. “They might not have the means to afford housing in Rotterdam, close to campus”, Krefeld-Schwalb explained.

Their first study focused on RSM students, currently there is a second EUR-wide survey which is still open. Krefeld-Schwalb: “Students are often a mirror of society. Media may sometimes focus on small, extreme groups of students fighting for or against something, but actually the majority of this generation is moderate, just like the entire society.”

No judgement

The research is not judgmental but collaborative, aiming to find opportunities for change without imposing it on individuals. Gabel adds: “Decision processes are so multifaceted. It’s all about understanding. Data are valuable input for policy makers. We want to explore the trade-off between what is realistic and what is necessary to change. Everyone changing everything is just an illusion.”

Strooisel_Duurzaam gedrag studenten milieu sustainability voetafdruk_Josine Henneken
Image credit: Josine Henneken

“There can be negative effects of interventions”, Gabel explains. “Imagine sending a message to meat-lovers, to become vegan. Well, some very strong reactions can be expected. Encouraging vegan food consumption is the wrong message for that person at that time.” Tailoring the messages to individual’s circumstances is crucial, Gabel emphasises.

Students each respond differently to EUR’s announcement of the campus becoming completely vegan by 2030. One view, from Max van Beurden (23, Sociology), is: “I would quite like this. I am not a vegan, but I often eat vegetarian meals. If people really want to eat meat, they can always bring it to campus themselves.”

Most effective nudge

Most respondents in the survey expect financial incentives and facilitation to work best. Max agrees: “I am always on my bicycle, and I don’t take long showers, but when I travel to South America, availability of options as well as comfort are a part of the decision. If there are more sustainable alternatives, I definitely prefer those.”

A main goal of the research is to eventually develop tools for policy makers, to more effectively influence individual decisions for the better. Researcher Sebastian Gabel: “You reward points for flying, why not for not flying?” This is an example of a nudge in the form of gamification. Gamification is proven to be effective in creating behavioural change as it simplifies a complex problem into an easily understandable ‘game’.

Who are responsible: individuals, companies, or governments?

“We are more important than the government or big companies”, Lou-Anne Wang (21, Management of International Social Challenges) thinks. “If we don’t consume their products or use their services anymore, they will have to change. It’s wrong to think that small steps don’t have an impact.”

According to Krefeld-Schwalb, the main responsibility lies with major companies, for example in the fossil fuel industry. “Despite this, it’s still essential to try and change individual behaviour. Individuals have roles in which they design choices for others. In particular RSM students are likely to become managers and consultants. Also, if a significant number of people change their behaviour, it can start a bigger transformation, the so-called social tipping point. A third reason is to avoid social unrest in response to new laws and regulations, as witnessed during the farmer protests in the Netherlands for example, it’s important to prepare citizens.”

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