top of page

Let's be honest, Episode 18: Expats & Exchange Students

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project with the aim to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable, as well as the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try, instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world creating a uniquely multicultural environment. Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!


What are we talking about today?

While working at Food Circle I've become acquainted with a multicultural team. I've enjoyed meeting individuals from lots of different backgrounds and it's common to find yourself talking with an exchange student or person living somewhere different to where they were born; expats.

I will be writing about the experience of the sustainable expat and how it can pull your values into question. I've informed myself by having conversations with expatriate friends, and will talk about what I learned from these people. Then I will go further to provide advice, presenting a remedy to dispel and disperse negative feelings, and to manage this clash in values and lifestyle. Finally I will give my opinion: if it's possible to be a sustainable expat.

The Clash in Values

Motivated to live elsewhere, I think that expats and exchange students seek adventure, unique experiences and have an open-mind to new cultures. However, normal practices and habits of an exchange student include flying which is generally deemed to be an unsustainable habit; due to the emissions and the commercial flight industry. It can be an individual's biggest contributor to climate change.

So, those with the desire to live sustainably can find themselves interrogated by their conscience when standing in an airport. Choosing to live away from home, increases the frequency of flying, and consequently your impact on the environment. Naturally, a habit that appears to go against your values, is likely to make you feel guilty. We might think to ourselves: "Am I an increased environmental burden due to my lifestyle?" And that conflict between personal values and common behaviours (such as flying home for the holidays) leads to cognitive dissonance.

This cognitive dissonance can drive an over adjustment to our lifestyle. Feeling like, since we are unethical in our travelling habits, we should make up for it by growing our own vegetables, avoiding the meat industry entirely, and sacrificing our professional life and ambitions to work towards sustainability.

While all of those things sound good, we should be careful about over adjustments. Before you take on more than you can handle, lets review what you're doing already.

Practice these two steps before making any over adjustments

If you are questioning whether you are truly behaving in an ethical, sustainable way, please follow these steps:

Step 1: Focus on what you are doing well.

Getting the full picture is important, and while you are about to board an aeroplane, it's likely that you are inconveniently forgetting all of the things that are doing very well. Try not to fixate on what could be better, but what you are already successfully doing. I personally suggest making a list of all the things you can think of that are in-line with your sustainability lifestyle or not. Almost like a pros and cons list. By opening your eyes to the full picture, you can disperse cognitive dissonance and self-judgement.

Think about: What products and companies do I support? & Do I engage in fast fashion?

What you might find is that you’re doing a much better job than you thought a few minutes ago, and in the scheme of things, your additional travelling habits are not the world’s biggest concern. By casting your ballot in the right way, you’re making your values clear to all, and taking a massive stride forwards for perhaps the micrometre step you could be taking backwards. A friend of mine inspired me when I was talking with her, and she told me that "[she is okay] with travelling habits because she knows she is already doing enough.

There might be some people who find, upon reflection, that they are not doing enough. The list of negatives outweighs the positives. In this case the feeling of guilt is kinda valid, and maybe your actions aren't reflecting your values. Don't beat yourself up about it, but maybe you can set some intentions, reminders or calendar appointments to make changes and put energy into cultivating some sustainable habits.

The message of this step, is to act based on the result of the big picture. There are some calculators on the internet that can tell you how much emissions you are likely responsible for.

Step 2: Consider your reasons for flying

If the step above didn't work, don't despair, I have another suggestion for you.

I've been given feedback: "you should think about the reasons why you're flying". Depending on the person, your reasons might be different, but I'm sure that there's another important value driving your behaviour. For some, you are doing this to make others happy. If you focus on that and bring it to your attention, I'm sure that will help to disperse the negative feelings. You just have to find the purpose behind your actions.

It's important to remember that the environmental impact of an individual is not the only thing that is important and influencing their choices. There’s only so much you can do (for the environment), before you are being a perfectionist.

Seize the new opportunities to be sustainable

Some Europeans living in the UK might wonder why there is no Pfant system, but get to enjoy the well connected and (somewhat) affordable railways. It seems that, when comparing two countries, there's often things that don't meet previous expectations, but simultaneously, things that exceed them.

It's actually a skill to be able to identify and make use of these sustainable opportunities, that are now available to you. I've learned from talking with others, that the reality of living somewhere different is that you come to love, appreciate and make full use of some of these opportunities. But at the same time there are things that bother you, frustrate you and appear to be missing from what you're used to.

An expatriate might have to be flexible to live their sustainable lifestyle, making sacrifices in some areas and gains in others.

The Verdict: Does being an expat really affect living sustainably?

No. It doesn't have to!

I personally encourage expats and exchange students to visit. I have noticed that is easier for them to see what could be better. Their broader experiences help them propose solutions that work in practice, and I welcome these suggestions of improvement. If we listen to them we might just learn a thing or two. And if you're an expat, please email your suggestions to relevant politicians and NGOs with the political power and marketing ability to spread awareness and create positive change.

Every person that I spoke to, said that they felt like an ethical expatriate!

Written by: Henry Mitchell


Want to do more?

Read our other blogs:

Check out our zero waste recipes:

Follow Food circle over on social media: