Dr Rachel Howell

Project Title: Transition to more sustainable lives?: the impact of infrastructure and services on students’ habitual behaviours

Climate change is a severe threat to all life on Earth. In response, the UK has committed to reducing its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, and Scotland by 2045. To reach these targets will entail changes across society, including to our everyday habits such as eating and doing laundry. This project explores undergraduate students’ energy- and food-related habits, and how they are influenced to be more or less sustainable by university infrastructure and services.

I’m focussing on students as a large and growing proportion of young people in the UK go to university, and they are likely to have higher lifetime carbon footprints than non-graduates because their lifetime earnings tend to be higher. Moving from home to university is a very important transition, and habits are formed which may last for years after graduation. For example, a student who’s developed a habit of eating some vegetarian meals each week might pass this on to a future family. For these reasons, it’s important to understand what material and social factors shape students’ behaviour and how to create university infrastructure and services to enable them to adopt more sustainable habits.

My research involves a large-scale survey of students’ everyday habits, plus interviews with 37 students involved in sustainability-related initiatives at different universities: two food co-ops and two food-growing projects.

The case studies ended up all being food-related because food-related projects are increasingly common, and food is a major contributor to carbon emissions. I’ve been investigating whether and how participating in these projects has influenced the students in terms of grocery shopping, cooking, and eating. I have discovered that many are learning to cook with a greater variety of vegetables, there is some increased awareness of seasonality of food, and some students have increased efforts to avoid plastic packaging and food waste.

Awarded: Research Incentive Grant

Field: Sociology

University: University of Edinburgh

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