Two weeks ago was Earth Day - Tones of social media posts popped-up to celebrate our Earth, thousands of talks have been organised to raise awareness and pledges from corporations have also been put upfront with pride.
Clearly, loads of people are aware about environmental issues and claim to be motivated to act.
But will they? Will you? Will I?
Will our actions follow our intentions in the same proportions? Obviously not, and we know it very well.
The question is: why is there still such a gap between our intentions and our actions towards environmental efforts?
This is an extremely vast topic and the below is an attempt at providing simplified, thus key directions to explain the gap within as specific context.
In this article we'll narrow down “environmental efforts" to "ethical consumption”.
Ethical consumption being understood as: purchasing and consumption behaviours which are related to environmental and social issues and are motivated by not only a desire to satisfy an individual's needs but also a concern for the welfare of society in general.
Why we intend to consume ethically…but we mostly won’t?
In ideal world beliefs determine attitudes, attitudes lead to intentions and intentions to inform behaviour and trigger it.
Unfortunately, we are not in an ideal world. Loads of empirical evidence prove that the gap between ethical purchasing intentions and ethical purchasing behaviour remains high – a words-deeds gap.
One example: in 2018, Among the 85% worldwide consumers who said they avoid single-use plastics, just 20% do so on every occasion.
If during Earth Day 2020, you pledged new resolutions to consume more responsibly, here is why you’ll probably fail to follow through.
We’ll struggle with old (bad) habits
New Year resolutions mostly fail, because we mostly fail to include these new actions in our routine. Ethical consumption is no different. Daily routines help people structure their life, which is why anything that sits outside of a daily routine is much less likely to get done. The power of habits…
We’ll perceive the benefits lower than the total costs
The complete purchasing process costs us more than money. It requires brainpower, time, energy, and resources. The more of these elements are required, the higher we perceive the costs.
Unfortunately, ethical consumption still requires more efforts than “traditional” consumption. Ethical products are less available so you need consequent brainpower to identify, source or remember them – probably extra time (and maybe more money) to complete the purchase…not too appealing for our reptilian brain.
We may not buy or use ethical products if we perceive their total benefits to be lower than the total costs even though we have a positive attitude and intention to act environmentally.
We won’t feel guilty enough…or proud enough
Humans are fundamentally motivated by the need to belong. To belong, we need to comply. When our behaviour doesn’t match the group behaviour we’re trying to comply with, guilt can lead us to behaviour change to achieve this social compliance.
Guilt is a significant factor in the consumer decision-making process. It impacts positively on affective, cognitive and behavioural levels, even if there is a temporal delay between message and act of compliance.
Similar interactions exist from the pride perspective via the “Warm Glow Effect” as well. Social good actions are perceived as valuable by the individual and provide with a positive feeling that triggers behaviour toward such actions.
However, ethical consumption is still not the main social norm (except in some very niche social groups). We are very unlikely to get a guilt trip if we don’t consume ethically and/or get extra pride reward for doing it well or better than others. The social desirability bias doesn’t play on our side.
We won’t be triggered as much as needed
The overall communications of ethical products remain way less predominant than the unethical ones. Our brain needs constant stimulus – being reminded is an important piece of consumption behaviour.
The volume of communication on unethical products still win our attention at a higher level and distracts us from responsible products / services - we interact with them less. Add to this a lack, a complexity or unclarity of information around these ethical products or services and you know what your brain will decide…
We won’t be convinced that our consumption choice matters
Perceived consumer effectiveness (PCE) refers to the consumer's belief that individual consumers can make a difference or impact the environment by purchasing or using environmentally friendly products.
The actual benefit here is the actualization of the consumer's goal to positively influence the environment. When we are confident that we can make an environmental difference via our green consumption, we are more likely to act in accordance with our intention or attitude.
If we lack of trusted information about the green alternatives and its eco-performance we might not believe that we are actually making a difference and will drop the ball.
With the rise of greenwashing and overall scepticism, our confidence to make a change will be challenged on a daily basis.
So what can we do to not fall in the gap?
Now that we painted a gloomy, thus realistic, picture of the scenario moving forward, here are a few things you shall consider to ensure your intentions will transform into actions.
Include ethical purchase behaviour in your routine
Attach your ethical shopping to something you already do: this is a a well-known concept called habit stacking. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. Ex: every Saturday I go to the supermarket, I’ll immediately go towards the organic shelves.
Make products available…to your mind
Source ethical alternatives of products you are consuming today. Prepare the full list and source them to check where they are available to purchase. Do this work at once so you don’t have to ask your brain to do the same work each time you go shopping. If you have the information already once for all, you’re reducing the efforts needed for ethical consumption in all your next shopping trips - the availability of green products will reminds you to act in accordance with your established intentions.
Connect your beliefs with products that serve the cause you believe in
We all are sensitive to specific causes. Either it be Animal well-being, Climate change, Plastic-free Oceans...these causes create a personal spark. Align your consumption behaviour with what you already believe in.
By doing so, it helps you to have better control of the green behaviour effectiveness because you goals towards the cause are perceived to be more solvable and less conflicted with your personal goals in the long term.
Buy only products you strongly trust are making a difference
Be picky, don’t fool yourself. You might ended buying only a few products but if you are convinced they make a difference, the habit will stick.
Join groups of ethical shoppers
You don’t have to do this alone. Social desirability bias, the motivation to consume ethically in front of others, or to claim to consume ethically more than one actually does, has been proven to be a key theme in the consumer decision-making process.
Make social desirability bias play on your side.
The journey towards sustainable practices and ethical consumption is not an easy one. Understanding how our brains work today is a crucial step we all need to take if we want to change our behaviour tomorrow and sustain it for the days, weeks, years to come.
Will you take that step?