A study on the habits of Victoria University of Wellington students and staff during lockdown revealed three notable lifestyle changes. Andrew Wilks looks at how locking down improves sustainability. 

Comment: Pandemic lockdowns are tough—anxiety levels are raised, social contact is limited, and work life is turned upside down. For most of us, getting back down alert levels can’t come soon enough. But there are some upsides to these lockdowns.

At Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, as for many big organisations, the pandemic has helped to significantly reduce our environmental footprint. During this pandemic, air travel has dropped by over 90 percent, and because we are now delivering more teaching online, fewer people are coming to the university, which reduces commuting and the use of electricity, gas, water, paper and consumables on campus. 

When we go into lockdown, our staff and students work and study from home. While challenging, this major disruption to our routines also presents the opportunity to break some old habits and form some new ones.

This most recent lockdown (for everyone outside Auckland) has been a bit quicker than the first one in 2020, and people seemed to adjust to their lockdown lifestyles more easily after having had some experience at it last year. The memories of the last lockdown came flooding back and were re-lived—the quiet streets, the more noticeable birdlife, the sense of community and, of course, the home baking.

After the first lockdown, my team asked environmental psychologist Dr Wokje Abrahamse and her master’s student Elizabeth Frude to investigate whether the lockdown had influenced our staff and students to adopt more environmentally sustainable lifestyles.

They surveyed our community on what new sustainable actions or choices they made during lockdown, and then interviewed some of them to get a deeper understanding of what their motivations were and if they had continued their new habits after the lockdown. They found three main areas of change.

The first area was change in consumption patterns. People couldn’t shop as much, reducing the accumulation of ‘stuff’, and once lockdown was lifted there was a strong preference for supporting local businesses.

Food consumption patterns were frequently highlighted—more time at home during lockdown led to more time in meal preparation and fewer takeaways or ready meals. Allocating more time to cooking improved wellbeing for many, and they felt they could prepare healthier meals that were less reliant on processed foods, and without using as much packaging. Some also cited using lockdown as an opportunity to switch to plant-based diets for financial reasons, or due to reduced access to meat.

The second major area of change was that our staff and students were forced to work and learn from home. While the rapid transition to this way of operating created a huge amount of work, and juggling work or learning with home life during lockdown was tough for many, current technology was able to support most functions of the university to continue.

This experience showed many of us that working and learning from home is a viable option and has made us more adaptable and resilient to future events. After the first lockdown, many continued to see benefits in working from home occasionally and, as a result, the demand for parking on campus has fallen considerably.

The third notable area of change is that lockdown provided the perfect conditions for increased rates of walking, running, and cycling, being caused by, and leading to, much less traffic on the roads and limiting our movements to short journeys. It gave us a glimpse of how pleasant and family-friendly our neighbourhoods could be if our streets weren’t so dominated by automobiles. Our interviewees enjoyed the health benefits and financial savings of using active, zero-carbon, modes of transport.

Of course, leading a more sustainable lifestyle during lockdown is good, but continuing those habits once alert levels drop and life returns to ‘normal’ is more challenging. Some of the new, more sustainable habits, have stuck. Our staff and students now work or study from home much more frequently. Maintaining the change in consumption patterns and use of active travel has had mixed success—some people have kept it up while others slipped back into old ways.

Making the changes stick requires the individual to have seen enough benefit from their sustainable choices in lockdown, and spent enough time doing them that a new habit is formed and they are motivated to keep it up.

It also requires the barriers to those new sustainable lifestyles in non-lockdown life to be reduced. Those barriers might be how busy people are, the need to travel further, or the temptation of pre-made meals.

As a university we are sometimes a contributor to creating those barriers, but we too are trying to use the insights from the lockdowns to make sustainable changes. We are continuing to encourage active transport for commuting, by changing parking permits from an annual price to pay-per-use, and providing guidance for all staff on flexible working.

Since the first lockdown we have continued to deliver teaching both online and in-person, allowing students to study from anywhere in the world if they cannot join us in Wellington.

We all have a lot more work to do to achieve a sustainable future. My hope is that this recent lockdown provides the reminder and the extra nudge to kick-start change and help us commit to sustainable lifestyles long-term.

Andrew Wilks is Director, Sustainability, at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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