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5 Ways to Reduce Consumption and Slow Climate Change

Katherine White, Rishad Habib and David J. Hardisty

Listen to the authors present their findings (source: May 2019 JM Webinar)


We live in a consumption economy. Rising global wealth has fueled an increase in both individual and corporate consumption, but under-investment in sustainable business practices and key infrastructure could create critical challenges ahead. Individual consumers are harming the environment with excessive meat consumption, plastic packaging, and careless use of energy and other resources. Meanwhile, government agencies have identified commercial building energy waste as one of the key drivers in accelerating climate change. As recent reports indicate, we are fast spoiling our natural environment, which will have consequences for this and future generations.

Many companies have taken a leadership role on sustainability, embedding it into their DNA by publishing sustainability commitments, transforming materials and packaging, offering buy-one give-one goods, and committing to zero waste. These moves don’t just build a loyal fan base: They also provide strategic benefits by helping future-proof the business in a fast-changing market and economic environment. In the outdoor recreation and retail industry, companies like Patagonia, REI, and Tom’s have created compelling sustainable businesses others can learn from.

Clearly, it behooves researchers, policy makers, and government and corporate leaders to help consumers rethink and change their behaviors. However, changing entrenched behavior is hard and harder still to scale. A new study in the Journal of Marketing provides a comprehensive literature review and psychological framework leaders can use to foster sustainable behavior. The framework highlights five routes to accomplishing this goal, represented by the acronym SHIFT. Our study demonstrates that consumers are more inclined to engage in pro-environmental behaviors when they receive a message or are in a context that leverages the following psychological factors: social influence, habit, individual self, feelings and cognition, and tangibility.

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Let’s look at these routes more closely:

  • Social influence: Consumers are often impacted by the presence, behaviors, and expectations of others. Social factors are some of the most influential in terms of effecting sustainable consumer behavior change. We examine how three different facets of social influence—social norms, social identities, and social desirability—can shift consumers to be more sustainable.

  • Habits: Habits refer to behaviors that persist because they have become relatively automatic over time, as a result of regularly encountered contextual cues. Because many common habits are unsustainable, habit change is a critical component of sustainable behavior change. Many behaviors with sustainability implications—such as food consumption, choice of transportation, energy and resource use, shopping, and disposal of products—are strongly habitual. Interventions that break repetition, such as discontinuity and penalties, can disrupt bad habits. Actions that encourage repetition, such as making sustainable actions easy, and utilizing prompts, incentives, and feedback, can strengthen or form positive habits.

  • Individual self: Factors linked to how individuals perceive themselves can have a powerful influence on consumption behaviors. We discuss concepts such as the positivity of the self-concept, self-interest, self-consistency, self-efficacy, and individual differences in responsiveness to sustainability appeals.

  • Feelings and cognition: Individuals continually balance feelings and cognition. We first outline how negative emotions such as guilt, fear, and sadness can impact sustainable consumption. In addition, we consider how positive emotions such as hope, pride, and affinity towards nature can lead to pro-environmental behaviors. Then we discuss the role of cognition in determining sustainable actions by considering the roles of information and learning, eco-labeling, and framing.

  • Tangibility: The final route to influencing pro-environmental consumer behaviors involves the issue of tangibility. One unique facet of sustainable consumption is that eco-friendly actions and outcomes can seem abstract, vague, and distant from the self. Most sustainable consumer behaviors involve putting aside more immediate and proximal individual interests to prioritize behaviors with ill-defined consequences that are focused on others and only realized in the future. We consider solutions to the tangibility problem including communicating clear, concrete, and local impacts of both unsustainable and sustainable actions.

In addition to outlining these five routes to sustainable behavior change, we delineate key challenges that make sustainable consumption distinct from typical consumer behaviors—the self-other trade-off, the long-time horizon, the requirement of collective action, the problem of abstractness, and the need to replace automatic with controlled processes. We examine each of these challenges to sustainable consumer behavior change through the lens of our SHIFT framework and outline theoretical propositions and directions for future research.

Finally, we note that no single route to behavior change identified by the framework works “best.” Rather, we suggest that practitioners should understand the specific behavior, the context in which the behavior will occur, the intended target of the intervention, and the barriers (and benefits) associated with the behavior. We note that because oftentimes there are multiple barriers to sustainable behavior change, combining strategies can accomplish goals better than one strategy alone.

Read the full article.

From: Katherine White, Rishad Habib, and David J. Hardisty, “How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (May).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Katherine White is Professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science and Academic Director, Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.

Rishad Habib is a doctoral student in Marketing and Behavioural Science, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.

David J. Hardisty is Assistant Professor in Marketing and Behavioural Science, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.