Sleep is eco-friendly and sustainable

Sustainability and sleep – at a first glance it might not be obvious whether there’s a connection between the two. But on reflection, I think there is one. In fact, there are four specific links I can see.  

It starts with the physical sleep environment. Here the link between sleep and sustainability is quite an obvious one. What type of mattress, duvet and pillow are you using. What’s your bed made from? Are the resources used in these products sourced sustainably? The likelihood is that most of them aren’t and that’s ok, you don’t have to change them immediately. But when the time comes, and it will come, can you choose sustainable and eco-friendly bedroom furniture and bedding products?

There’s another aspect to this first link – temperature. When it’s hot, we don’t sleep well. As our planet gets warmer so do the nights. A recent study has shown that higher temperatures at night make it harder for people to fall asleep or to sleep long enough. The researchers estimate that a person is loosing 44 hours of sleep per year (!).

The second link: cognitive and empathic performance

Next up is your cognitive performance. Healthy, good quality sleep enables you to think and make sound decisions. It facilitates empathising with others – humans, animals and perhaps even with nature. While you sleep, your brain restores its cognitive functions, so that the next day you can process information and assess risks. The opposite happens if you get too little sleep. You struggle to concentrate and think innovatively, let alone make a sensible plan of action! Clearly, solving sustainability problems when you’re struggling to grasp the facts becomes a problem in and of itself.

I mentioned empathy a moment ago, so let’s dive deeper into that. Healthy sleep enables you to regulate and share your emotions and affects how you interact with others. Poor or lack of sleep, however, makes you feel irritable and frustrated. There’s also a tendency to blame others when things go wrong. None of this is helpful when you have to understand each other’s viewpoint at a deeper, more nuanced level. Nor does it help negotiating and developing complex, large-scale solutions to fix the climate crisis, including enabling everyone to live sustainably. 

The third link: moral awareness

Ok, we’ve seen how sleep enables us to fully assess the situation and be less reactive. The third link in the relationship between sleep and sustainability is moral judgement and ethical behaviour. Both are crucial for deliberation and for progressing the sustainability discourse, and both are adversely affected by lack of sleep. Poor sleep makes it harder for us to see the moral implications of decision we or others make. Under these conditions (poor sleep and lower moral awareness) we (and others) are more likely to behave unethically.

Decisions concerning sustainability including climate change action are not easy and involve challenging discussions. They are complex and can go on for hours extending well into the night. Often, they start again early the morning. On such a schedule, participants don’t get much sleep. And that can make it difficult to weigh up options and consequences of their actions. As a result, they may not act in alignment with their moral compass but instead go for short-term gains.

The fourth link: anxiety

And then there is anxiety. On the one hand there’s anxiety and a sense of pressure. These come from the question whether what we are doing to slow climate change is right and enough. On the other, there is ‘eco-anxiety’ and feeling frightened of experiencing the devastating effects climate change. Feeling anxious (apart from irritation and frustration) is a common trigger of poor sleep. But poor sleep and insomnia is also a risk factor for anxiety. This creates a vicious circle of sleep deprivation. Because we don’t sleep well, we become more anxious, and this drives more sleeplessness. This is the insidious risk of poor sleep because it affects how we act and feel. And in the face of climate change and wanting a good quality of life, this matters! 

Lastly, when you sleep you naturally consume less. Jonathan Crary wrote in his book 24/7 “sleep […] evades […] the demands of global consumer society.” I take this to mean that because sleeping people do not usually go shopping and tend not to drive cars, they use less energy than wakeful ones. When we sleep, we do not commute on trains, we use fewer appliances, and we ‘evade’ other activities like working at banks of computers in highly lit office blocks. Directly or indirectly the act of sleep reduces our carbon footprint. 

So, what could be the next step? Look after your sleep. In my (biased) view it’s the foundation for physical health, cognitive performance, and mental and emotional wellbeing. Viewed in that way, sleeping well enables you see the full picture and make ethically sound decisions that help the planet and humanity. Put simply, sleeping well is most definitely green-friendly.


Dr Kat