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World Consumer Rights Day: What motivates consumers to act sustainably?

GUEST BLOG: Linda Steg

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Linda Steg, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Groningen, studies factors influencing sustainable behaviour, the effects and acceptability of strategies aimed at promoting sustainable behaviour, and public perceptions of technology and system changes. She writes about what motivates people to consumer sustainably.

What percentage of people deny that climate change is happening, or deny that human actions cause climate change? To what extent do people across the world care about nature and the environment?

When I ask these questions in my talks, it appears that most scientists, practitioners as well as the general public have a rather negative impression of the extent to which the public believes in anthropogenic climate change, and endorses environmental values. Indeed, many believe that a large proportion of people deny climate change, and some even think that a majority of people do not believe climate change is happening and human-caused. Similarly, people generally think that other people care less about nature and the environment than they themselves do.

Yet, studies generally show that the picture is not that bleak. In fact, a very large majority of people believe climate change is happening and human-caused, and people across the world generally strongly endorse environmental values and are thus intrinsically motivated to protect nature and the environment. Moreover, the more strongly people endorse environmental values, the more likely they are to act sustainably, even when doing so is costly or inconvenient.

How to motivate people to act sustainably

The above implies that campaigns could target such pro-environmental motivations to encourage sustainable behaviour. Indeed, emphasising the environmental benefits of actions encourages people to act sustainably. In fact, such environmental motivation appear more effective than motivations that emphasise the financial benefits of sustainable actions.

How can we explain these counterintuitive findings? One explanation is that many sustainable actions would only yield minor financial gains. As a consequence, people think it is not worth the effort to engage in such behaviours. Interestingly, people find it more worth the effort to engage in sustainable behaviour when the environmental benefits are emphasised. An important reason for this is that doing good makes us feel good. Acting sustainably reflects positively on the self, and elicits a warm glow. This implies that acting sustainably can be intrinsically rewarding, yielding positive feelings, not merely because it is pleasure to act sustainably, but mostly because it is meaningful to do so. When people anticipate feeling good by acting sustainably, they are more likely to engage in such actions, even when this is not the most profitable or easy option.

What are the barriers?

Given that most people believe climate change is happening and see it as a threat, and that people generally care about protecting nature and the environment, how can we explain that we still face environmental problems, and that sustainable actions are lagging behind? Why do people not more consistently engage in sustainable actions?

First, they may not be aware of the environmental impacts of their behaviour, or of effective ways to reduce them. Second, some sustainable actions may be too costly or inconvenient, implying that acting sustainably would threaten other things people value as well. Third, people may underestimate how much others care, including other people, governments, industry and NGOs, which may demotivate them to act sustainably.

What is the role of the consumer movement?


Consumer organisations can play a critical role in removing these barriers for sustainable lifestyle change, particularly given the great trust they enjoy among consumers. For example, given their long-term expertise in effective consumer communication, consumer organisations can help to communicate the environmental impacts of different products, services and actions in a clear and convincing way. Moreover, consumer organisations have established successful strategies to urge and convince relevant actors, such as governments and industry, to take the consumer interest at heart. This makes them well positioned to motivate such actors to support the development and introduction of sustainable products that are affordable and readily available to all. Also, consumer organisations can clearly communicate that they care about nature and the environment, and what actions they have taken to reduce their environmental footprint.

To reduce environmental problems and to mitigate climate change, urgent actions are needed from all actors across the world. Consumer organisations can lead by example, and inspire and support consumers across the world to do the same.