How May Consumer Policy Empower Consumers for Sustainable Lifestyles?
by John Thøgersen, Aarhus School of Business
Overview of the Research
At least judged by its outcome, it seems that consumers in the richest parts of the world make less of an effort at changing their lifestyle in a sustainable direction than is desired by society and than is in their own collective long-term interest. Part of the explanation for this is that individual consumers are constrained by limited resources in terms of finances, time, cognitive capacity, energy, and knowledge, and in everyday life lots of activities and goals compete for the same limited resources. In addition, there are external conditions affecting the effectiveness of an individual consumer’s striving for sustainability. Because external conditions influence all or many consumers, making them more facilitating for sustainable consumption can be much more effective than anything an individual consumer can do.
Many of the external constraints facing consumers who want to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle are of a relative nature and their impact depends on the individual’s resources. For instance, if a consumer wants to buy organic food or environment-friendly detergents, limited distribution and premium pricing put restrictions on his or her opportunities for doing so. However, how severely these restrictions are felt depends upon the individual consumer’s financial and time resources and sometimes on other resources (e.g., knowledge) as well. Together with the person’s level of motivation to do so, this subjective feeling of how difficult it is to make a change towards a more sustainable lifestyle determine how hard the person will strive to do so.
Consumer policy can empower consumers for changing lifestyles by reducing some of their individual constraints, but it should also attempt to loosen some of the external constraints that make changes towards a more sustainable lifestyle difficult. In terms of reducing consumers’ subjectively felt restrictions on their ability to change lifestyle, the two approaches are equivalent. However, they may differ in their political feasibility, effectiveness, and costs. Policy that increases a feeling of empowerment may also have a positive effect on consumers’ motivation to make an effort, thus amplifying its effects.
The available evidence suggests that although individual consumers – especially in the industrialized world – have some discretionary power over their consumption pattern and although current lifestyles contribute to resource depletion and environmental degradation, limited abilities and restricted opportunities, in combination with norms and incentives supporting non-sustainable practices, make it difficult even for highly motivated individuals to do anything radical to improve the sustainability of their lifestyles. And when it comes to the implementation of laws and regulations making structural conditions more conducive to sustainable consumption (e.g., introducing environmental taxes) “the scale of change has fallen well short of the rhetoric” (Lafferty & Meadowcroft, 2000, p. 381), as it was put in one thorough analysis of government policies in nine of the richest countries in the world. Hence, appeals to individual consumer responsibility in this area easily get a flavour of “blaming the victim.”
Still, in a joint effort where governments and businesses also do their part, empowering consumers to overcome their personal limitations as well as to be more motivated and initiating, is undoubtedly a valuable, probably even indispensable, part of an overall strategy for achieving a more sustainable consumption pattern. The evidence presented in this research points at many things that can be done. It is argued that a crucial characteristic of empowerment is that it is a feeling, not something that can be quantified objectively. This has the practical implication that improving the consumer’s individual resources and making the environment more transparent and more facilitating may have the same effect on consumer empowerment. A facilitating environment can to some extent compensate for deficient consumer resources, and vice versa.
Implications for Consumer Policy
Motivational psychology suggests that empowerment, at the individual level, can be achieved through the provision of possibilities for acquiring a sense of competence and self-determination. Education and information about sustainability issues related to one’s current lifestyle as well as possibilities for behaviour changes which are important, can be mastered, and offer the individual some freedom of choice, are important means. Individuals feel empowered when they experience being in control and being able to master change. A feeling of empowerment is also nurtured by a sense of belonging, for instance when doing things for the environment together with other people.
Theory and research also indicate that government communication aimed at promoting a more sustainable lifestyle should not be overly pressing. Pressing language can produce the opposite of the intended effect. And it would hardly be fair to actively induce guilt feelings in consumers for maintaining a normal lifestyle, a lifestyle which to a large extent is encouraged and the result of structural conditions created by government and business. When it comes to normative communication, governments should primarily let their actions speak. As it is the case in parenting, action speaks louder about one’s norms than words. Hence, more than from anything else citizen consumers infer the importance of sustainability issues from the commitment shown the issues by our best men and women, representing us in various government bodies.
When it comes to convincing consumers to make specific changes in their lifestyles, people should be trusted to be able to infer the appropriate behaviour change from knowledge about the problem and how it relates to their lifestyle. Empowerment here means education supplying the necessary knowledge about the problem and information about the – often many – ways in which behaviour changes can help, and providing feedback allowing the individual or household to monitor their progress. Communication aimed at correcting common misperceptions about consumption norms – which may induce people to over-consume in order to “keep up with the Joneses” – or at rectifying the false impression that nobody else is doing anything is another promising tool.
Additional Sources of Information
Lafferty, W. M., & Meadowcroft, J. (2000). Patterns of governmental engagement. In: W. M. Lafferty & J. Meadowcroft (Eds.), Implementing sustainable development. Strategies and initiatives in high consumption societies, pp. 337-421. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reisch, L. A. (2004). Principles and visions of a new consumer policy. Journal of Consumer Policy, 27, 1-42.
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