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Consumers’ Environmental Sustainability Beliefs and Activism: A Cross-Cultural Examination

Consumers’ Environmental Sustainability Beliefs and Activism: A Cross-Cultural Examination

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Environmental sustainability research unfortunately deals with a lack of comprehensive investigations, and it tends to ignore the influence of human values, beliefs, and behaviors. It doesn’t help that while consumers want to help to protect the environment, the studies surrounding them are scarce and hard to put into practice. However, as we break down this research, we can show that it captures the link between human values and sustainability beliefs, and how they vary across cultures. The results of this research are encouraging and hopefully can lead to more fruitful research in the future.

Environmental Sustainability Beliefs

Environmental sustainability beliefs can show us why some people easily adopt pro-environmental behaviors while others do not. Researchers who specifically study this look into many variables that affect people’s sustainability beliefs and their behaviors, but many marketing researchers overlook the value of this information. This has partially led to biased results or even false conclusions. While sustainability has become more popular, many international companies do not recognize that cross-cultural differences exist, and have found that their successful marketing campaigns don’t work in every country. Understanding environmental sustainability beliefs in each context can help companies create better marketing campaigns that will help sell more environmentally-friendly products worldwide.

Human Values and Their Relationship to Sustainability

Human values are centrally held, enduring beliefs that guide people’s actions. Value systems tend to lead people to certain assumptions that are reinforced in societies around the world. Human values are often what motivates people to do what they do, and arguably make the highest impact on consumer behavior than almost anything else. Understanding human values is a complex field of study, but many of the samples available are directed only at certain countries such as the UK, the United States, and Denmark. Some studies have emerged for countries like China, Brazil, and India, but there are almost no studies that provide a cross-cultural analysis. Because each culture is unique, it only makes sense that they will each have different approaches to environmentally sustainable behaviors and the beliefs that lead to them. However, they are somewhat consistent in nature.


One of the human values that tends to lead people to environmental sustainability is called Generativity. This is the idea that people care about future generations, causing them to invest time and work into projects that will outlive them. One part of this is generative concern, which is worry and feelings for the next generation. The other part is generative action, which is a commitment and impact upon others to help future generations. While many cultures have both generative concern and action, generative action is much more prevalent in Western cultures.


This is a value that reflects the importance of material possessions. This is a complicated concept that captures the degree of importance and centrality that people attach to items. This can be a negative or a positive value. Materialism is much more directly related to marketing, as it reflects the consumer’s desires. Materialistic values are seen as conflicting with environmentalism, but this may not be true. The link between materialism and environmentalism is most often seen as negative in Western cultures rather than Eastern cultures. Over the last twenty years, much of this narrative has changed in the world, suggesting that there can be a mutually beneficial relationship between materialism and environmentalism.


Religion is often a guiding value in life, but it is not often observed by marketing research. Research that is available on the link between religion and sustainability beliefs is often mixed and not very clear. It definitely has an impact, but it isn’t quite clear what that may look like in the future for environmental sustainability.

Family Values

This is a value that is linked to generativity. Family values are the importance that an individual places on relationships and connections with their family. Families play a key role in the development of pro-environmental beliefs. The importance of family is not universal, and it differs greatly between countries. Family values seem to be much more important to people in Eastern cultures. Western values have changed as the family unit has changed over the past few decades. It also is important to note that in Western families, there is a higher importance placed on independence and individual character. Eastern families focus more on harmony and support. This makes a difference in their perspective on the environment and sustainability.


People in different cultures feel very differently about their sense of self. The sense of connection with others and sense of independence, along with the way individuals understand themselves has an impact on their choices and feelings. Interdependence is how people relate to each other, and how that affects their ability to work together. This affects consumers’ views of environmental sustainability significantly, because how can people face and tackle environmental issues if they don’t believe in getting along with others? Highly interdependent people are more conscious of other people’s decisions and take more responsibility. This is stronger in Eastern cultures than in Western ones.

Environmental Sustainability Beliefs and Quality of Life

Research shows that people with high environmental sustainability beliefs demonstrate awareness and understanding of the current environmental state and the effects of human actions. These beliefs show a connection between values and behaviors, including activism and the desire to minimize the negative actions of others and themselves on the environment. Much of this manifests itself in consumer purchases of items that are sustainable, as well as household actions like recycling and minimizing energy consumption. Many of these people also choose different transportation choices like using public transport or biking to work. There are links that show that there is a strong positive relationship between environmental beliefs and activism to a higher quality of life. People like managers and policymakers need to intensify their efforts to communicate the importance of this knowledge, and that international marketing needs to reflect the unique characteristics of each country rather than using standardized approaches. There is so much to gain for individuals, and for society at large.

Learn More About the Supporting Research

This article was supported by research published in AMA’s Journal of International Marketing. If you liked this and want more, AMA members get full access to all research published across all our academic journals.