This article is a first contribution of a trans-disciplinary applied research work in sustainable consumer behavior.
Did you enjoy the holidays? Were they as deeply satisfying as you hoped for?
Holiday celebrations are over, another 2’366’000 Christmas trees have been sold in Austria alone, most of them are waiting to be recycled after a few short days of being admired. At the same time, most of these 2’366’000 buyers like to go for a walk in the forest – trees are essential for this natural experience!
At a superficial level, most people are aware of the big environmental issues, this awareness being perhaps limited to climate change, biodiversity loss (especially elephants, rhinos, pandas, polar bears, whales, bees, over-fishing), air pollution, deforestation, and plastic in the oceans. At the same superficial level, people care about major social issues, such as poverty, hunger, inequality, discrimination, violence, stress, insecurity. Furthermore, when asked, most people in most countries express “concern” for these issues.
MAK Wien, January 2018
So, let’s follow up with our consumer behavior experience: during the same holiday period, how does our tradition to offer presents square with our concern for the environment or other humans? Once it comes to deciding what present to offer a family member or close friend, consumers are willing to compromise, or even completely ignore the impact of their purchases. They end up with yet another half-toxic plastic toy for their child, a blouse made (by someone else’s child labor) in India, or the latest Nintendo gadget destined to soon become e-waste… isn’t this strange, as many expressed concern about the specific problem they are making worse by their own actions. Do we care at all? An excellent article about Xmas shopping, “The Gift of Death”, by George Monbiot, was published in the Guardian in 2012 – if anything, it’s even more relevant in 2018.
Beyond Christmas, in spite of all knowledge and expressed “concern”, most people behave in a massively self-destructive way most of the time, directly and personally contributing to the problem. Let’s look at this self-destructive, yet perfectly “normal” daily behavior: eating processed food based on industrial agriculture, traveling a lot, organizing one’s life around a car, following fashion in clothes or electronics, and simply participating in the consumer society all damage the environment (for example climate, biodiversity loss, deforestation, air-water-soil pollution), undermine healthy society (promoting discrimination, inequality, “lifestyle” diseases, poisoning from toxic waste, fueling conflicts and wars, displacing populations), and also destroy personal well-being (unhealthy lifestyle, poor nutrition, short-term focus, lack of meaningful social connections, stress and uncertainty).
Thus, it is a matter of fact that human behavior has to be seen as something complex that cannot be split into parts to be analyzed separately (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2010). No internal and external factors justify a deconstructive individual behavior. As of today, researchers from different fields like psychology, sociology and environmental sciences have not yet found answers to this gap between being conscious about the need to change in regard to sustainability, and the willingness of change in regard to consumer realities.
Reasonably assuming that most people in most countries cannot be completely crazy, we must also assume there are other, even more powerful, forces at work. This will be the initial focus of our research.
Of course, a significant and growing minority is indeed starting to change, in areas as varied as nutrition (vegans, vegetarians, locavores and many other flavors), consumerism and shopping, zero waste, transportation and many more.
What are your resolutions for 2018? After one week, do you still expect to achieve them?
New Year Resolutions are a tempting way of “turning the leaf”, repeatedly and unsuccessfully practiced by a sizable majority. Much research in psychology explains why, and offers suggestions on how to improve the success rate, here is a good example published just last week. But, as it happens, 55% of health-related resolutions and many of the remaining ones are examples of willpower trying to fight the system of normal daily behavior described above, the “normative expectation”, a shared belief about how to behave. Of course, the “system” usually wins. Making sustainability the default, the new normative expectation is clearly our challenge.
MAK Wien, January 2018
The authors were inspired by an applied art exhibition “Aesthetics of change”, in the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, Austria, a presentation of a trans-disciplinary work, coming from universities around the world, with insights in regard to sustainability. Beside a “future room” showing how consumers can access knowledge by simply pronouncing keywords, or standing in front of a camera showing an art photo of themselves, or observing a robot perfectly drawing a Mars landscape (who is surprised by this anymore?), we see this gap between visitors understanding future solutions and their daily consumer behavior. But there is one single message: any member of any social-technical group can become a change agent in regard to sustainability.
This brings us to our applied research question: Why do people continue destroying their own environment instead of changing their way of consuming?
We hope you’ll follow us on this exciting journey, and wish you a great, sustainable 2018 !
Sascha Nick, BSL Professor
Alexandra Broillet, BSL Professor