Values and Attitude Formation Towards Emerging Attitude Objects: From Recycling to General, Waste Minimizing Behavior

John Th°gersen, Aarhus School of Business
Suzanne C. Grunert-Beckmann, Copenhagen Business School & Odense University
ABSTRACT - While a number of studies have dealt with the antecedents of recycling behavior, other waste minimizing behaviors have received much less attention in consumer behavior research. A few studies have tested the so-called values-attitude-behavior hierarchy within the environmental domain, assuming that values are crucial to understand environment-related behaviors but that the importance of values will be underestimated if critical mediating constructs are not assessed. This study follows this tradition while, at the same time, investigating the importance of values for attitude formation towards emerging attitude objects in a Danish setting. The importance of values for attitude formation is confirmed.
[ to cite ]:
John Th°gersen and Suzanne C. Grunert-Beckmann (1997) ,"Values and Attitude Formation Towards Emerging Attitude Objects: From Recycling to General, Waste Minimizing Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 182-189.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 182-189


John Th°gersen, Aarhus School of Business

Suzanne C. Grunert-Beckmann, Copenhagen Business School & Odense University


While a number of studies have dealt with the antecedents of recycling behavior, other waste minimizing behaviors have received much less attention in consumer behavior research. A few studies have tested the so-called values-attitude-behavior hierarchy within the environmental domain, assuming that values are crucial to understand environment-related behaviors but that the importance of values will be underestimated if critical mediating constructs are not assessed. This study follows this tradition while, at the same time, investigating the importance of values for attitude formation towards emerging attitude objects in a Danish setting. The importance of values for attitude formation is confirmed.


The unprecedented growth in economic activity in the post-war period has led to a dramatic increase in the production of waste, making the generation of solid waste a major environmental problem, particularly in the Western hemisphere (Sitarz, 1994). The total amount of waste produced in 1990 in OECD countries has been estimated to 9 billion tons, out of which 420 million tons were municipal waste (OECD, 1991). The quantity of waste paper alone in the OECD countries amouned to 150 million tons in 1990-compressed into bales, it would cover the entire city of Paris to a depth of two and a half meters (Kurth, 1992). SomeCespecially EuropeanCcountries incinerate a significant part of their solid waste, but most of this waste is dumped (European Environment Agency, 1995). Waste incineration reduces the volume of the waste and allows to recover some of the resources in the waste as energy, but it leads at the same time to air pollution (Bernes, 1993) and still leaves a large rest product [The rest products form 39 Danish waste incinerators in 1992 amounted to 20% of the waste burned by weight (Christensen, Paaby, & Holten-Andersen, 1993).] that has to be disposed of.

In the last decade there has been increasing focus on ways to reduce the amount of waste. Two major possibilities exist: (1) recycling of waste products in order to re-use them by other users, for other purposes or as secondary materials (Pieters, 1991), and (2) preventing the origination of waste by, e.g., using fewer primary materials in production processes and designing products that are recyclable or produce less or less harmful waste when disposed of. To be successful, both strategies depend on active consumer involvement and participation.

The past decade has witnessed a marked increase in consumer behavior research focusing on recycling at the household level (for recent, comprehensive reviews of the literature, see Pelton, Strutton, Barnes Jr., & True, 1993; Th°gersen, 1996). However, even though recycling of waste is an indispensable element in solving the waste problem, it is only a second best solution as not all waste materials are recovered and resources are wasted in the transportation and processing of recyclables. Moreover, some consumers may feel that careful source separation of household waste exempt them from changing their buying and consumption patterns in order to prevent waste from arising in the first place. However, as emphasized in the strategy document of the Rio Earth Summit, "a preventive waste management approach which focuses on changes in lifestyles and in production and consumption patterns offers the best chance for reversing [the] current trends [in waste production]" (Sitarz, 1994, p. 222). This is why waste prevention is increasingly emphasized in waste management policy (e.g., European Environment Agency, 1995; Milj°- og Energiministeriet, 1995). Consumers can contribute to waste prevention by demanding products and packaging that are recyclable and/or have a low waste and a high recycling content, and by prolonging the use of products in the household.

We use the notion "waste minimization" to cover activities that a person performs in order to reduce his or her (or his or her household’s) contribution to the waste stream. Hence, consumers may perform waste minimization by, e.g., buying beverages in refillable bottles, reuse plastic bags, repair broken household items, or source separating their waste. [Others have used the term "waste management" to cover this class of consumer activities (Taylor & Todd, 1995a, 1995b). However, we prefer to give this notion the same meaning as it has at the company and municipal level, i.e., covering all activities aimed at disposing of waste whether or not it is recycled.] Consumer behavior research has only very recently begun to investigate general waste minimizing behavior (Taylor & Todd, 1995).

For many consumers in affluent societies, waste prevention is an emerging attitude object. Of course, it is not a newly discovered phenomenon as, e.g., the environmental problems discussed by Stern, Dietz, Kalof and Guagnano (1995). However, it is a "rediscovered" or redefined mode of conduct which breaks with the behavioral pattern of the "buy-and-throw-away" culture, and which has only recently been brought to the attention of a wider public by media coverage and, probably, previous recycling experience.


A large body of literature has developed around the hypothesis that individuals hold a relatively stable set of universal values which they use to evaluate objects, events, other people, and themselves, and to select and justify actions (Schwartz, 1992). Because of their stability and centrality in a person’s cognitive structure, values are functional in ocusing attention to what is important in a situation and thus assisting the person in making more efficient decisions (Dietz & Stern, 1995) which may be especially important when confronted with a new attitude object (Stern et al., 1995). Most scholars view values as fairly distal determinants of behavior working through a number of more proximal determinants, like beliefs about consequences of the behavior and specific attitudes and norms (e.g., Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Gray, 1985; Grunert & Juhl, 1994; Homer & Kahle, 1988; Rokeach, 1968; Stern et al., 1995; Stern & Oskamp, 1987).

McCarty and Shrum (1993, 1994) have demonstrated the presence of a values-attitude-behavior hierarchy (VAB) regarding recycling in an US-American setting. Not all parts of the value structure are equally relevant for evaluating behaviors in a specific domain. Stern et al. (1995), Grunert (1993), and Grunert and Juhl (1995) report quite consistent findings about which values are most important for decision making within the environmental domain. It has been argued that recycling is categorized as altruism by most people in affluent societies (e.g., Hopper & Nielsen, 1991; Smith, Haugtvedt, & Petty, 1994; Th°gersen, 1996). If this is the case, altruistic values should play a crucial role in forming attitudes towards recycling (and presumably towards waste prevention too). Further, research on norm activation (e.g., Schwartz, 1977) suggests that the attitude towards recycling acquires a status as a moral imperative, a sense of personal obligation to act in a certain way (cf. also Dietz & Stern, 1995). Since recycling is now a well ingrained behavior in large segments of the population in the Western world, this literature lets us expect fairly strong influences of values and attitudes on recycling behavior. Additionally, we may expect that the influence of values on recycling is mediated through attitudes.

As already mentioned, waste prevention may be characterized as an emerging attitude object, suggesting that attitudes and beliefs about this type of behavior are less ingrained in the cognitive structure of the average person than are attitudes and beliefs about recycling. The question is, which pattern of relationships between the mentioned construct should we expect in this case? Based on the research of Fazio and others (e.g., Fazio & Zanna, 1981) we may expect weaker associations between attitude-expressing constructs when people are less than when they are more experienced. If values play the role suggested by Stern and his associates (1995; Dietz & Stern, 1995) in guiding attitude formation towards emerging objects, we may expect that in the case of waste prevention a V-A association is established before an A-B association. Hence, we hypothesize (1) that the relationships between values, attitudes and behavior are weaker with regard to waste prevention than with regard to recycling, and (2) that the weakness is more pronounced with regard to the A-B relationship than with regard to the V-A relationship.


In summer 1995, a telephone interview survey was conducted with a sample of Danish residents aged 18 years and older (N=1002). Households were drawn randomly from a telephone register covering the whole country, and respondents within households were selected using the "next birthday" method. The appropriate individual completed a survey in 53.8% of the households reached. Data were collected concerning values, beliefs about consequences, norms, attitudes, behavior with regard to recycling and waste prevention, and a number of other issues not discussed in this paper. Waste prevention was operationalized as packaging-conscious buying.

The above-mentioned hypotheses were tested using a path analysis approach. Three different models were developed and tested with a series of multiple regression analyses:

(1) values-beliefs about consequences-behavior

(2) values-attitudes/personal norms-behavior

(3) values-beliefs about consequences/attitudes/personal norms-behavior

The following questions from the survey were used to test the models:

- Fourteen items from Schwartz’s value indicator SVI [In the translation of the items to Danish, one item got a slightly different meaning than in the original SVI. "Obedient" in the English version of the SVI became "Pligtopfyldende" in the Danish version. However, the correct English translation of "Pligtopfyldende" is "Conscientious" which is not included in the SVI.] (Schwartz, 1992) measured on a 9-point unipolar scale with the end points "not important at all" and "of decisive importance as a guiding principle in my life."

- Eight items covering beliefs about consequences of either recycling or packaging conscious buying (four each) measured on a 5-point bipolar scale with the end points "very unlikely" and "very likely."

- Attitudes towards source-separating glass and bottles, composting appropriate kitchen waste, and buying groceries with excessive packaging, [A negative attitude towards buying groceries with excessive packaging is interpreted as a positive attitude towards avoiding excessive packaging.] measured on a 5-point bipolar scale with the end points "very negative" and "very positive."

- Feelings of personal obligation (i.e. personal norms) to source separate glass and bottles, to composte appropriate kitchen waste, to avoid groceries with excessive packaging, and to buy beverages in refillable bottles, measured on a 4-point unipolar scale with the end points "no obligation" and "very strong obligation."

- The frequency of source separating glass and bottles, composting appropriate kitchen waste, avoiding groceries with excessive packaging, and buying beverages in refillable bottles, measured as the number of times out of the last five opportunities.


As recommended by Maassen (1996), listwise deletion was used in the case of missing values. In order to minimize the detrimental effect of this method on the sample size, we chose to recode missing values in those cases where they could be given a meaningful interpretation. With behavior frequency, we assumed that not giving an answer (which in this case meant choosing the "not relevant" category) is equal to a behavior frequency of 0. Concerning values, we assumed that not being able to answer means that the value in question is unimportant (i.e., MV=1). Regarding attitudes and beliefs about consequences, we assumed that not being able to answer means that the person is undecided (i.e., MV=3). The three following methods were used for scale construction:

(1) The attitude towards packaging conscious buying was represented by one item in the survey only (referring to the buying of groceries with excessive packaging). Hence, this item was used as the scale.

(2) The personal obligation (or norm) and the behavior frequency regarding both of the investigated behaviors and the attitude towards recycling were all represented by two tems each in the survey. In these cases, scales were constructed by averaging over the two items. In cases with missing value in one of the two items (questions about personal norms only), the value on the other item was used. Hence, these scales are based on questions referring to the buying of groceries with excessive packaging and the buying of beverages in refillable bottles in one case, and on questions referring to the source separation of glass and bottles and the composting of appropriate kitchen waste in the other case.

(3) Values and beliefs about consequences of the behavior were based on a sufficient number of items to allow for factor analysis to construct the scales. We used exploratory factor analysis (principal components factor extraction and oblique varimax rotation) in order to increase the comparability of our results with previous research and because of the warnings against using confirmatory factor analysis with value items (which are often quite skewed) voiced in this research (Stern et al., 1995). In choosing the number of factors, we used the standard convention of a minimum eigenvalue of 1.0. However, whereas this resulted in a perfectly intuitive factor structure for perceived consequences, the 5-factor solution produced for values was less intuitive than a forced 4-factor solution. Since other arguments also supported the latter solution (reproducing the factor pattern produced by an unrestricted factor analysis based on the same data, but without missing values being recoded, and the eigenvalue of the fifth factor in the 5-factor solution being only marginally above 1 [1.001]), we chose to use this in the following analyses. Table 1 shows the four resulting factors regarding values. [Some factor analysis literature refer to a standard convention of using a minimum factor loading of 0.4 (e.g., Stern et al., 1995) while others refer to the standard being 0.3 (Kim & Mueller, 1994). Hence, we chose a position in the middle, using a minimum factor loading of 0.35.]

The pattern found is consistent with the pattern described by Schwartz (1992) and Stern et al. (1995), with two exceptions: (1) a self-enhancement (Schwartz) or egoistic (Stern et al.) value cluster could not be identified (presumably because to few items from this value cluster were included in our measurement instrument), and (2) instead of a unified self-transcendence (Schwartz) or biospheric-altruistic (Stern et al.) value cluster, our factor analysis produced two factors corresponding to the benevolence and universalism motivational types in Schwartz’s terminology and to social-altruistic and biospheric values in Stern et al.’s. This latter result is especially interesting because this division was in fact expected by Stern and his associates (1993, 1994, 1995): Based on their review of both theoretical and empirical research, these scholars expect that a separate biospheric value orientation is in the process of emerging in the general population, but at least with the data at hand they were not able to detect it. Our data seems to indicate that the crystallization of a separate biospheric value orientation is more advanced in the general population of Denmark than in that of the USA. [Relying on a somewhat different approach, Axelrod (1994) found a separate biospheric value orientation among a sample of Canadian students.]

Table 2 shows the two times two resulting factors for beliefs about consequences. Only four items were used to measure beliefs about the consequences of each of the two activities, recycling and packaging conscious buying (specifically focusing on the avoidance of excessive packaging). As expected, the principal components analysis produced two factors in each case: one that captured personal costs of performing the activity (three of the items in each case) and one that captured the environmental benefits (only one item in each case).


As mentioned above, three different models were developed in order to test alternative versions of the values-attitudes-behavior hierarchy hypothesis:

(1) values-beliefs about consequences-behavior

(2) values-attitudes/personal norms-behavior

(3) values-beliefs about consequences/attitudes/personal norms-behavior

Figure 1 illustrates these models and in addition includes possible paths from beliefs about consequences to attitudes and personal norms which will be discussed briefly below. The confirmation of either Model 1 or Model 2 depends on some paths in the illustrated model being non-significant.

Traditionally, in tests of the values-attitudes-behavior hierarchy hypothesis the employed attitude measure has been a composite of beliefs about consequences (e.g., Homer & Kahle, 1988; McCarty & Shrum, 1993, 1994; Stern et al., 1995). However, attitude research indicates that higher explanatory power could be obtained by operationalizing the median level in the hierarchy by means of an instrument that in a more direct way captures the "general feeling of favorableness or unfavorableness" towards the behavior (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). In fact, this research predicts that not only the effects of values ("evaluations" in this terminology) on behavior, but also the effects of beliefs about consequences are mediated through attitudes. Since both types of measures were included in our survey instrument, we decided to test which one fares best, our expectation being that aCby the nature of the matterCmore narrowly focused beliefs-based measure is inferior to a more inclusive direct measure of the overall attitude towards the behavior. However, considering a recent theory about the function of values in preference formation (Dietz & Stern, 1995), we also suspected that a general favorableness-unfavorableness measure may not be the best way to operationalize attitudes towards the act of recycling or waste prevention.

Dietz and Stern (1995) argue that individuals, both because of their limited mental capacity and because it is often more effective, typically use a classification-and-rule calculus to form attitudes, not the systematic mathematical calculus assumed in subjective expected utility theory: "In most circumstances humans observe a situation, categorize it, and use a simple rule to determine the appropriate behavior for that situation. The choice process relies on processes of classification: for example, 'if this is a situation of type A, then action X is appropriate.’ In the most simple circumstances, the situation is classified as one that do not require deliberation: some rule automatically applies, such as habit or moral imperative" (p. 268). This theory predicts that the attitude of an environmentally concerned person towards performing an environmentally friendly activity takes the form of a moral imperative and, hence, becomes identical to what is generally known as a personal norm (Schwartz, 1977; Stern et al., 1995; Fishbein, 1967).

One may argue, as does Fishbein at several occasions (1967, Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), that the normative beliefs and values that are captured by measures of norms would also be captured by a general attitude, if properly measured. However, this idea is based on rather unrealistic assumptions about humans’ mental capacity (e.g., Dietz & Stern, 1995). And in practice, Fishbein and a great number of other renowned scholars have taken the consequence of the lack of empirical confirmation of the hypothesis about an allencompassing attitude construct and included normative measures in their models for explaining behavior (e.g., Ajzen, 191; Fishbein, 1967; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Schwartz & Tessler, 1972; Triandis, 1980).





Hence, in order to test the hypothesis that environmentally concerned consumers are likely to develop a moral stance towards performing the types of activities investigated here, we included two "attitudinal" measures in our analyses: favorableness-unfavorableness towards and felt personal obligation concerning the activity in question. Based on Dietz and Stern’s (1995) theory, we expected a stronger correlation between biospheric and also social-altruistic value orientation and the personal norm measure, than between these values and the attitude measure, and also between personal norm and behavior than between attitude and behavior. The results of the tests are shown in Table 3. In order to be able to compare the independent variables’ contribution to the explanation of a dependent variable, standardized b weights are reported. The lower half of the table reports the results concerning waste prevention. In each case, the first four rows report multiple regression analyses of the relationships between values and the intermediate variables in the alternative versions of the values-attitude-behavior hierarchy introduced earlier. In the next two rows, beliefs about consequences are added to the equations explaining attitudes and personal norms. In the final step (rows 7 to 10), behavior is regressed on (a) values and beliefs, (b) values, attitudes, and personal norms, (c) values, beliefs, attitudes, and personal norms, and (d) beliefs, attitudes, and personal norms.



As is generally the case in analyses within this line of research, the proportion of variance explained by our analyses (the adjusted R2) is fairly low. The two most important reasons for this are that a large error variance is difficult to avoid, especially at the more abstract levels (Grunert, 1996) and that a number of variables known to influence behavior in this field (cf., e.g., Pieters, 1991; Th°gersen, 1994) are omitted from the analysis. Moreover, economic and practical constraints have forced us to use simplified measurement instruments which may have aggravated the error variance problem.

Still, beliefs and attitudes concerning both recycling and waste prevention are significantly related to values at the one hand and to behavior at the other. When controlled for the proximal determinants, values add little to the explanation of behavior (cf. the non-significant b-values for values in equation 9), i.e., practically all the influence of values on behavior is mediated through more specific beliefs and attitudes about the behavior. Surprisingly, conservation values (VF4) turns out to have a significant influence on recycling (equation I.9) when the intermediate variables have been controlled for (note that "Conservation" in Schwartz’s terminology refers to conservatism, not to environmental concern.) The factor loadings reported in Table 1 gives a hint to a possible explanation for this relationship. The strongest loading item on this factor is "preserving my public image." Hence, it is possible that individuals scoring high on this factor are more sensitive than others to the social pressure to recycle. Because waste prevention is still in its infancy, it is likely that there is less social pressure to perform this activity. Also, the hypotheses that the associations between values, attitudes and behavior is stronger with regard to recycling than with regard to waste prevention, and that the difference is larger for the A-B than for the V-A relationships, are supported by the data. Only with regard to the equations that relate beliefs about consequences to values (equations 1 and 2) is the adjusted R2 higher for waste prevention than for recycling

Consistent with the hypothesis that recycling and waste prevention are perceived as altruistic activities, both values and behavior are more strongly correlated with personal norms (felt personal obligation) than with attitudes (favorable/ unfavorable) in both cases (equations 3, 4 and 7-10, except equation I.9). This conclusion is further strengthened by the finding that the attitudinal variables andbeliefs about environmental consequences are more strongly correlated with biospheric values than with any other value orientation (equations 1-3). The negative correlations between biospheric and social-altruistic values and beliefs about personal costs with regard to recycling (equation 1) indicate that one of the ways that values guide behavior is by producing selective attention and information processing (Dietz & Stern, 1995; Stern et al., 1995).

Also consistent with our expectations, the attitude and personal norm measures are more strongly related to both values and behavior than the beliefs based measures in all cases except one (equations 1-4). Concerning waste prevention, there is a weaker relationship between values and attitudes than between values and beliefs about environmentally beneficial consequences. As predicted by attitude theory (e.g., Eagly & Shaiken, 1993), values and cognitions (beliefs about consequences) contribute independently to attitude formation, including the formation of a personal norm (equations 5 and 6). In the case of waste prevention, beliefs about consequences only effect personal norms, and this fairly weak.



The attitudinal variables are also related to social-altruistic values (in all cases except one, equation I.5), but generally the relationship is weaker than to biospheric values. These values are traditionally assumed to be the source of morality so this finding strengthen the conclusion about the moral nature of attitudes and norms concerning recycling and waste prevention. Somewhat unexpectedly we also found a significant correlation between personal norms and the openness to change value orientation. This relationship suggests that both recycling and waste prevention are not only perceived as the morally right thing to do, but also as the "modern" or "progressive" way to behave.

In attitude research it is usually assumed that the effects of beliefs about consequences on behavior are mediated through attitudes (Eagly & Shaiken, 1990). Inconsistent with this assumption, but consistent with Schwartz’s (1977) prediction that people are likely to post-rationalize a moral situation to a situation where their moral norms do not apply if the perceived costs of performing the behavior are too high (cf. also Mansbridge, 1990; Th°gersen & Andersen, 1996), beliefs about personal costs contribute significantly to the explanation of behavior when the attitudinal variables have been controlled for (equations 9 and 10). Hence, this result is also consistent with the assumption that many people classify recycling and waste prevention within the "domain of morality" (Schwartz, 1970).


In this paper we have analyzed various versions of the values-attitudes-behavior hierarchy model for a class of environmentally friendly, waste minimizing behaviors. Based on a large random sample of Danish consumers, we found that such a hierarchy can indeed be identified with regard to both recycling and waste prevention/packaging conscious buying. Hence, it adds to the number of studies suggesting that values are crucial to understanding environment-related behaviors and that the importance of values is underestimated if critical mediating constructs are not assessed (e.g., Grunert, 1993; McCarty & Shrum, 1993, 1994; Stern et al., 1995). Second, our data confirms a number of hypotheses implying that values are functional in attitude formation towards new or emerging attitude objects and specifically emerging attitude objects within the environmental field. Third, our data supports the hypothesis that a separate biospheric value orientation is crystallizing from what was former a general social-altruistic value orientation. Fourth, biospheric values are found to have the largest (but not the sole) impact on beliefs and attitudinal variables with regard to the analyzed behaviors. Fifth, although both attitudes and personal norms are significantly related to bothvalues and behavior, the personal norm (feeling of a personal obligation) is most strongly related to variables at the other levels of the values-attitudes-behavior hierarchy in both cases. Sixth, although some of the effects of beliefs about consequences on recycling and waste prevention are mediated through attitudes and personal norms, perceived personal costs still have a direct influence on behavior when these variables have been controlled for. The last three findings all point in the same direction, indicating that most people in the analyzed population classify the analyzed activities within the "domain of morality."

These findings contribute to our understanding of antecedents of environmentally responsible behaviors by demonstrating the existence of a values-attitudes-behavior hierarchy and by confirming Stern et al.’s (1995) hypothesis that individuals construct attitudes towards emerging attitude objects by referencing values and beliefs about the consequences of behavior for their values. Moreover, we were able to identify a distinctive biospheric value orientation in the Danish population that in the literature on environmentalism has been mentioned as critical for the willingness to take environmental action-a result which at the same time points at a cultural difference between Denmark and the US.

With regard to policy implications, the findings of this study suggest two strategies: (1) the need to strengthen the salience and importance of biospheric values through educational measures, and (2) the importance of informing citizen-consumers about the environmental consequences of their consumption patterns and their share of responsibility for achieving a sustainable development.


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