Hard choices (BEHAVE 2014 Blog Series, 2/4)

This blog is the second in our series of blogs in the lead up to the 2014 BEHAVE conference. Like the first blog, we’re delving into some of the results of a survey we ran a few months ago that gauged consumer attitudes towards a range of environmental and lifestyle issues.

In our survey we asked:

‘How often do you personally buy the most environmentally friendly option when you go shopping?’

The choice of words in the question was quite deliberate. In research we conducted a few years ago for Defra we established that, in terms of making a justifiable claim about a product, businesses should avoid the phrase ‘environmentally friendly’: it has no precise meaning, so it is difficult to verify. In the same research, however, we discovered that it is a phrase that the general public – perplexed by the technicalities of ‘low carbon’ and ‘zero waste’ and ‘bio-diversity’ – like very much.

It is easy for people answering surveys to ‘overclaim’ in responses to such questions, yet only one in twenty respondents in our survey claimed to make such a choice all of the time. In fact, just over half admitted that they only occasionally or hardly ever buy the most environmentally friendly option when shopping.

GN chart 3

It is well known, and obvious, that factors such as price, quality and convenience invariably loom largest in the minds of citizens when they make their consumption choices. The ‘environment’ is often a peripheral factor, something that – as we suggested in recent work for the Fairtrade Foundation – enables the typical consumer, as their make their occasionally or hardly ever choice, to get a reassuring ethical glow.

Nevertheless, most people know or believe the environment to be important. So, are there other reasons why shopping choices are so rarely influenced by environmental concerns?

One possible influence on people’s choices is whether or not they think it makes any difference to the environment. Our survey results point to a complex picture:

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 14.24.11

Recycling is considered by close to 90% of respondents to make some or a lot of difference to the environment; and there would seem to be a neat fit with the high proportion of people claiming to recycle. People would probably be less willing to make the effort to recycle if they thought it was a waste of time, after all. Recycling rates across the UK have increased dramatically over the last couple of decades. Not only is it now much easier to recycle, with widespread kerbside recycling infrastructure, but people’s awareness and norms have also been successfully influenced.

Making environmentally friendly choices when shopping is some way below recycling in terms of perceived impact, with only two-thirds of respondents considering this to make some or a lot of difference to the environment. Clearly, if more people were choosing environmentally products regularly it would have a profound impact on the environment, but this appears to be less well recognised.

Communicating the benefits of shopping choices is perhaps more tricky than communicating the benefits of recycling. Supply chains are often complex and opaque, and even ‘deep greens’ can be unsure of the relative merits of organic, seasonal, local, Fairtrade…

Shopping choices therefore remain hard choices. Citizens already have to balance economic, convenience and nutrition issues. A complex and poorly understood environmental dimension is understandably a lower priority. The survey results suggest that if the impacts of these purchasing decisions were better communicated and understood, consumers might be more inclined to give further consideration to these choices.

[Fieldwork was conducted on-line in September 2013 with a representative sample of 1,000 GB adults by GfK]

One Comment

  1. Posted November 12, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    In my experience (sadly) a lot of the bluster around consumers being environmentally concious, is lip service and a synthetic guilt. The media tell them they should show concern, therefore they outwardly express concern when asked. It’s a very thin crust that crumbles when other factors such as price are brought up. They agree in principle that if the reality of cost is suspended they are right behind it, 100%!. That’s not to say that the synthetic guilt is not useful, it still forces people to do more than they would otherwise because as much as their own guilt may be synthetic, they won’t outwardly admit to that as they feel the majority of society may look down on them. This perpetual bluff, will become reality in future generations as they are told it’s a priority from a young age and it becomes second nature. Just like we have seen in social attitudes being adjusted in other instances.

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