The Everydayness of Sustainability


The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.(Walker Percy)

Recently Chris Upton said he’s learned not to assume others are passionate about what you’re passionate about. One of my passions in the last decade of my life, is now neatly summarised in the word ‘sustainability’ though I haven’t called it that. Now my personal and work lives are merging. The world I work in is becoming more passionate about this topic too. In short, we are all no longer burying our heads in the sand. I’m working in an insights role between consumers and companies. I’m now finding that both sides are facing the ‘how do I do more?’ conundrum about sustainability. I’ve been in this role for 4 years since I relocated with my family back to Dublin from Copenhagen. The way consumers and companies talk about sustainability has changed dramatically. Four years ago, I was cautious not to bias the findings towards something that interested me personally. These days, sustainability is a central topic in the briefs we are receiving and delivering on. Doing consumer research gives us a window into the everyday lives of people and it’s there that my interest lies.

When I say the everydayness, I mean our actions and things that we use every day….

  • Like what we eat – whether we consider where it came from, where will it go…
  • Like what we do with our time, how we approach the basic tasks of the day and the week, making sustainable choices in response to how busy our lives are…
  • Like how we approach even the big consumption occasions like Kids parties, Halloween and Christmas…

When I typically ask someone about sustainability they automatically think recycling and energy use. Just this week I went to the Thinkhouse Breakfast where Jeremy Mathieu spoke of indirect impacts of sustainability – on lifestyle and career. To me, that creates a framework for some thoughts I’ve had on everyday sustainability building up to this blog. Here, I’d like to talk about 3 areas I’d like to understand

1) as a researcher in this space and
2) as someone who keeps trying to elevate the choices I make as a person in my own everyday life

How resilient are we as consumers to adopt a lifestyle change, a change in career approach ?

The 3 aspects of this everydayness I want to understand more:

Convenience underpins much of what happens in our lives. We look for quicker ways, shortcuts, and much of what we consume is built on spontaneity. More sustainable choices are often slower, more complex, require more digging into information, more planning and even imagination….

  • Like…. Taking the time to do a Zero Waste Shop
  • Like…..Remembering to bring a reusable cup
  • Like….Reading up on a brand or looking for claims to be sure that they are your brand of choice
  • Like….cooking from scratch or in season

As my mother in law says ‘if you say yes to one thing you say no to another’ – if we say yes to sustainability what do we say no to? As I talk to consumers, they are often keen to have more shortcuts. The likes of the Fairtrade symbol and the Bord Bia quality mark work well. Consumers, however, are actually articulating the need for much more. People like the author Jack Monroe are making good food choices attainable even for those who typically cannot afford it.

If we looked across the generations about who is living more sustainably, we could learn so much. Older generations have a living memory of how to live a more sustainable life. As Michael Kelly from GIY once said we’re only two generations away from the soil and in my own family that’s the case. Many of the behaviours and attitudes of my granny who lived to the ripe age of 98 are ones I need to emulate. We see community groups facilitating intergenerational learning through initiatives like repair cafes. Across the generations, there is much to be learned by opening up conversations and exchanges of information. The RTE coverage this week is reaching across the generations.

I’ve been working on projects which have teased out the emotions people feel around sustainability. As the picture with Jeremy shows many emotions can co-exist. I hear guilt and shame and fear to anger and for some, hope. Conversations are changing and emotions are heightening, particularly among young people. I can’t help but think of Brené Brown and her work on guilt and shame how relevant it is. My own trigger point to changing my ‘everyday’ sustainability was shame. It was in a creche in Denmark 11 years ago. I’d sent in sandwiches for my son wrapped in tin foil. The pedagogue working with my son told me off as it wasn’t biodegradable. It hadn’t occurred to me before that point. After that, I moulded into Danish everyday life and my choices became much more conscious. It was easier though, simply because it was built into society. A more recent trigger was at a grow my own veg course. The wording of how few harvests we’ve left brought a fear so raw. I thought of my own children and how they will find food in the future. I find that when interviewing people, their emotional triggers are the most illuminating. Emotions are also contagious and have a domino effect.

emotions in marketing

This is the phrase that has stuck with me from a day at the Responsible Innovation Summit recently. I heard about people repurposing their skills to become more sustainable. As Ali Sheridan tells us the age of sustainable business is here. One of the things that struck me was people carving out new paths in their careers. They spoke of raising their hands to do things in a different way.

What can each of us do from where we are standing right now?

So, here are ways I want to make an impact as a qualitative researcher. I want to dig into the complexity of what this means to consumers’ everyday lives through:

  •  The Analysis of articles – I’ve been collecting sustainability articles systematically over this last year. If you have any you think I should include please send them to me
  • The omnicar – some of you may have seen quantitative omnibus studies before and this is a qualitative twist on that approach. This is a qualitative study on sustainability where we would like to go around interviewing more people across Ireland about sustainability (our transport will be an e-car). It’s not about one client or one project – people can jump in the car together
  • A Reduction in our agency prices for sustainable projects

And lastly, in the spirit of working together, let me know if you can help us also become more sustainable in what we do in Spark as well – we’re learning as we go and are open to any synergies if what I’ve said above resonates.

Christine Mullan-Jensen, Associate Director


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