UN release

GoGreen Project: University Studies Environmental Psychology in Young People

It’s now more evident than ever that we need to change our habits and behaviors to adapt to climate change and ecological crisis successfully. Therefore, researchers worldwide are looking for evidence-based solutions to alleviate people’s efforts to adjust their behavior to the changing global ecological situation.

Yet to ensure that these solutions are effective, it is necessary to consider the context. For example, countries differ in strictness of environmental policies, level of environmental education, and infrastructure readiness (e.g., recycling, public transportation).

Some countries are challenged by more social issues than others (e.g., among many others, various inequalities, food & water scarcity, low income, and poverty). These issues can prevent people from engaging in environmental conservation. Thus, policymakers might need different tools to facilitate people’s transition to nature and environment conservation in various countries.

People have different views towards environmental issues and value different things in life. Therefore, the motives of why people conserve the environment also differ. For example, one can do it for personal gain (e.g., helps maintain a positive self-image), or one genuinely cares for the well-being of others and nature 1,2.

What motivates people to conserve the environment is quite extensively studied in Western societies. However, less attention to environmentally friendly behavior research is received in developing countries or countries that are young in environmental policies, specifically young in policies that target pro-environmental behavior.

To fill this gap in 2015-2016 m. group of young researchers at the Mykolas Romeris University – MRU (Audra Balundė, Mykolas Simas Poškus, and Lina Jovarauskaitė) led by prof. dr. Rita Žukauskienė started to explore what motivates or discourages people in Lithuania from conserving the environment.

Lithuania is a small Northern-European country. Due to various historical and geopolitical events, Lithuania only recently started to acknowledge people’s environmental behavior in environmental policies. But these policies primarily focus on immediate practical concerns, such as costs and convenience 3. Concern for financial stability dominates public discourse and debate. This concern might be because people in Lithuania strongly focus on material needs, physical and economic security 4 rather than environmental issues 5. The predominant focus on materialistic aspects might be determined by various socioeconomic issues that Lithuanians face: high rates of people living at risk of poverty and social exclusion, one of the lowest incomes among EU countries, economic growth gaps between cities and rural areas, high rates of unemployment in rural areas, among others 6–9.

But do Lithuanian people focus solely on socioeconomic concerns rather than environmental protection? How widespread are various environmental conservation practices? For example, recycling, choosing environmentally friendly commute means (e.g., bicycle, electric scooter, public transport), conserving energy and water, participation in environmental movements, among many others. What motivates people to engage in environmental conservation? Are there any differences in environment conservation among adults and the younger generation?

We realized that it is crucial to find these answers. There is a need for research-informed environmental policies in Lithuania. It is critical to ecological education policies that are somewhat fragmented as yet.

In response to these questions and needs, the research project was launched in 2018: “ Go Green: Understanding the psychological mechanisms of the development of pro-environmental behavior in longitudinal intervention. ” Project was led by prof. dr. Rita Žukauskienė. Research team: Goda Kaniušonytė, Inga Truskauskaitė-Kunevičienė, Mykolas Simas Poškus, Audra Balundė,  Lina Jovarauskaitė and Oksana Malinauskienė. Soon afterward Environmental Psychology Researcher Centre at the Mykolas Romeris University was established to provide a platform for systemic research in environmental psychology in Lithuania.

This project is the first in Lithuania to systematically study environmentally friendly behavior and the factors that determine it from the perspective of environmental psychology. As this is the first scientific project of its kind in the country, it was primarily aimed at exploring the prevalence of environmentally friendly behavior and identifying its determinants. In addition, we also aimed at creating research-driven means that could encourage young people to be more environmentally friendly and conserve resources.

In the first part of the project, in the national representative survey, we included more than 500 adolescents and one of their caregivers (Figure 1). We asked how often they engage in various environmental behaviors. We found that adolescents and their caregivers engaged relatively similarly in some behaviors, such as picking up their litter in nature, purchasing drinks in reusable packaging, and recycling batteries. Yet, caregivers engaged more often than their children in (almost all) behaviors, such as doing laundry in a fully loaded machine, using reusable grocery bags, and composting waste. There were also cases where adolescents acted environmentally friendly much more often than their caregivers, namely walking to school on foot, using public transportation to commute to school, or participating in environment protection events. One clear trend in both groups is that people engaged in some behaviors more often than others. For example, returned deposited plastic or purchased drinks in reusable packaging quite often, while buying organic groceries, cycling to work, eating vegetarian food, or volunteering in the environmental organization were rare behaviors. Policymakers and practitioners working with environmentally-friendly behavior facilitation programs could consider these findings and specifically target those rather unpopular behaviors.

Figure 1. Environmentally friendly behaviors of adolescents and their caregivers (unpublished data of Environmental Psychology Research centre, MRU).

In this study, we also found that adolescents and their caregivers think protecting nature and conserving the environment is essential and that they see themselves as environmentally friendly people. These findings suggest that they have strong environmental values and identity. We also found that strong environmental values and identity led to multiple environmental conservation actions. For example, to name a few, purchasing organic groceries, using reusable bags for shopping, and purchasing unpackaged goods 10.

In the second part of the project, we looked for ways how we could encourage young people to conserve the environment. We focused on adolescents mainly because the success of tackling ecological issues will depend on how young people value the environment and its resources, how important environmental issues are to them, and how skilled they are in conserving the environment.

We took a two-step approach. First, we developed a behavior change program and tested its effectiveness in a pilot study in several schools. Then, we replicated the program in a new sample of adolescents. Given the global crisis of plastic waste, we targeted bottled water use.

We used five strategies to target various personal characteristics related to bottled water use. First, we made behavior easy by handing reusable water canteens to the study participants so they could easily refill them with the tap water. Further, everyday app-based reminders to pour tap water were used as prompts. Every time participants entered information into the app on how much tap water they drank, they immediately saw how much money they saved and what a positive impact on the environment was. Therefore, we also asked the participants to indicate in the app how many bottles of water they purchase weekly and how many bottles they are planning to refuse. Finally, to model behavior, we used a promo video (developed by UNEP), where the reusable canteen was suggested as an alternative for purchasing bottled water.

A pilot version of the program turned out to be effective and increased adolescents’ awareness of the consequences of plastic bottle pollution and the need to cut its use. The program also increased youngsters feeling that they have control over their buttled water use behavior 11.

In the second step, we explored how long the effect of this program remains on behavior. We did not include feedback this time because the pilot study showed it to be ineffective. However, the remaining components of the program increased participants’ moral obligation to refuse bottled water use, strengthened intentions and habits to drink tap water, and decreased bottled water use (unpublished data of Environmental Psychology Research centre, MRU).

Local media widely covered the results of the project. We also presented them to the relevant stakeholders such as (non)governmental, education, and business organizations and other interested parties such as journalists covering environment protection topics.

This article presented only a tiny fraction of the results that we generated during the project. Please contact us for more information audra.balunde@mruni.eu or please look at the project webpage www.gogreen.mruni.eu. We believe that results of this project could be interesting to policy makers of countries socioeconomically similar to Lithuania.

[the above text contains 1384 words]

Content prepared by Audra Balundė. She is a candidate of a double PhD at the Mykolas Romeris University and the University of Groningen. She is currently leading the Environmental Psychology Research Centre at MRU.

Content approved by prof. dr. Rita Žukauskienė, head of Applied Psychology Research Laboratory.

The project described in this article was funded by the European Social Fund according to the activity ‘Improvement of researchers’ qualification by implementing world -class R&D projects’ of Measure No. 09.3.3-LMT-K-712. Funding was acquired by prof. dr. Rita Žukauskienė.

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