Consumers’ Environmental Sophisticationbknowledge, Motivation and Behaviour

ABSTRACT - This paper focuses on the level of consumers’ environmental sophistication. The issue is approached by presenting some results of two recent Finnish studies on environmental literacy and the role of environmental information in consumer decision-making. First, survey results on consumers’ environmental literacy and its implications are presented (Study 1). Secondly, results of a qualitative study on the use and usability of environmental product information in the choice of daily products are reported (Study 2).


Mari Niva, Eva Heiskanen, and Paivi Timonen (1998) ,"Consumers’ Environmental Sophisticationbknowledge, Motivation and Behaviour", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 321-327.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 321-327


Mari Niva, National Consumer Research Centre, Finland

Eva Heiskanen, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland

Paivi Timonen, National Consumer Research Centre, Finland


This paper focuses on the level of consumers’ environmental sophistication. The issue is approached by presenting some results of two recent Finnish studies on environmental literacy and the role of environmental information in consumer decision-making. First, survey results on consumers’ environmental literacy and its implications are presented (Study 1). Secondly, results of a qualitative study on the use and usability of environmental product information in the choice of daily products are reported (Study 2).


During the past few decades, environmental problems have been increasingly seen as a result of modern consumption and production patterns. In industrial nations, the problems were first tackled by developing "end of pipe" technologies and by reducing the harmful emissions of factories and plants. It soon became apparent, however, that the focus on production would not suffice to solve environmental problems. Nowadays, the emphasis is more and more on curtailing the impacts of rapidly increasing consumption flows in addition to reducing the impacts of production processes and emissions from e.g. traffic (e.g. trandbakken 1995; St° 1995).

Surveys show that consumers world-wide are concerned about the environment on the global, national as well as on the local scale. Consumers’ attitudes towards environmental conservation are positive and their interest in the environmental impacts of products has also grown during the past decade (e.g. Environmental Protection Agency EPA 1993; Ester, Halman, and Seuren 1993; European Network of Market- and Public Opinion Research Agencies INRA 1992; Heiskanen and Timonen 1996; Kempton, Boster, and Hartley 1995). Along with this, the business community has recognized the marketing value of environmental aspects. This has lead to the recognition of the potential of market-driven environmental improvement (e.g. Commission of the European Union 1992; Delbridge 1996).

However, market-driven policies rely heavily on consumers’ sophistication in environmental matters as demand for environmentally sound products is a precondition for market-based instruments’ success. As consumers are expected to be the new guardians of environmental improvement, they are also expected to be knowledgeable and able to make environmentally sound decisions.

But are consumers motivated and skilful enough to behave in an environmentally responsible way? This paper addresses the question from the perspective of environmental literacy and environmental attitudes, on the one hand, and the ability to make use of environmental information in decision making, on the other. Results from two studies carried out at the Finnish National Consumer Research Centre (NCRC) are presented. First, a survey study on consumers’ environmental literacy, i.e. their general background knowledge on environmental problems, is discussed in the following section (Study 1). Secondly, we report findings from a qualitative study focused on the utilization and usability of environmental product information in decision-making situations (Study 2). On the basis of the findings of these two studies, the level of consumers’ environmental sophistication and its implications from the point of view of the potential of market-based environmental policy instruments are discussed.


We investigated the environmental literacy of Finnish consumers in connection with a national environmental survey (n=1614), the data for which were collected by structured computer-aided personal interviews in 1994. The sample is representative of the Finnish population. The study is a part of an extensive research project #Environment 1994’ co-ordinated by Statistics Finland (see e.g. Heiskanen and Timonen 1996; Moisander 1996; Tanskanen 1996).

General environmental literacy

One of the measures we used to test consumers’ environmental literacy consisted of a four-item knowledge test on environmental problems. Acidification, eutrophication and global warming are widely discussed environmental problems in Finland as well as in many other European countries, and we were interested in finding out how much citizens actually know about the causes of these problems. The respondents were asked to identify the main cause of each problem among three alternatives. Furthermore, respondents were asked to identify the correct meaning of households’ indirect (accrued) energy consumption (Table 1). Other items measuring environmental literacy included questions on private car-traffic, the mechanism of global warming and the significance of fossil fuel use in global warming (Table 2).

The survey results indicate that the environmental literacy of Finnish consumers is not very high (Tables 1 and 2). Especially the main causes of acidification and global warming seem to be difficult to comprehend. Only 29% of the respondents knew that the most significant causes of acidification are traffic and energy production. Half of the respondents could not identify energy production and consumption as the main causes of global warming (Table 1), and almost two-thirds were of the opinion that greenhouse effect is caused by a hole in the atmosphere (Table 2). Similar confusion has been found by Kempton (Kempton 1991; Kempton et al 1995): lay people are unable to differentiate between global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion. More generally, citizens’ lack of understanding of environmental issues is a widely recognized phenomenon both in Europe and in the US (INRA 1993; Kempton 1991, Kempton et al 1995).

The #knowledge test’ showed that educational level was a strong determinant of environmental literacy (Figure 1). The difference in knowledge between secondary school graduates (attending school for 12 years or longer) and those who had only comprehensive school education (9 years or less) was statistically significant (p<.0001). In addition, men were better informed than women on environmental issues (p<.0001) (Figure 1).

What inferences can be made on the basis of the survey? Respondents were very concerned about global and regional environmental problems. However, most people seem to lack an understanding of the connections between their own behaviour and its environmental consequences. Hence, it is extremely probable, and to some extent also demonstrated (Kempton, Harris, Keith, and Weihl 1985, Kempton 1991) that people do not understand the environmental relevance of, e.g., choosing household appliances or vehicles that require less energy.





Practical knowledge

In addition to examining the level of background knowledge about environmental issues, consumers’ everyday behaviour relating to the environment was studied. A series of questions concerning laundry detergents and laundering behaviour was included in the study. It was found that the respondents’ knowledge level was higher in this area than in the area of general environmental information, and that differences between different socio-demographic groups were smaller. For example, 68 % of respondents knew that there were laundry detergents bearing the Nordic environmental label (for details of the label, see the following chapter on Study 2) available in the market.





Obviously, practically oriented information, such as environmental labelling, is to some extent able to bypass the prevailing lack of general environmental literacy. 84 % of those respondents who usually bought detergents for their own household reported paying attention to the environmental characteristics of detergents. However, 75 % of the respondents considered it difficult to decide which products actually are better for the environment. In addition, lack of information figured prominently among the reasons for not buying environmentally sound products both in Finland (Heiskanen and Timonen 1996) and in Sweden (Eureka Research 1994), both countries actively applying the Nordic environmental label (Table 3).

The survey brought out the multidimensionality of environmental awareness. People may lack scientific knowledge on the causes and effects of environmental problems, but they may well be prepared to make environmentally more benign choices provided that there is practical information available on such alternatives. Both ability and motivation seem to be required for environmentally oriented consumer behaviour.


Most consumers believe that they can affect the state of environment by making environmentally more benign choices (Heiskanen and Timonen 1996). However, the results of the previous study sow that one of the most frequently reported reasons for not buying environmentally sound products is the insufficiency of product information. Also many US studies have found that consumers have difficulties in understanding the environmental claims made by producers (Cude 1993; EPA 1993).

Environmental labelling systems are a means of providing consumers with reliable and easily-absorbable information about the environmental characteristics of products (e.g. Rubik 1995). Such labelling systems started to develop in Europe as early as the late 1970’s, when the first third-party environmental labelling system, the German "Blue Angel", was launched (Wendorf 1995). However, only in recent years have third-party labelling systems proliferated.

Environmental labelling systems also aim to encourage producers to continually improve the environmental quality of products and to integrate environmental aspects into the product development process. The systems are positive, i.e. they indicate environmentally preferable products. They are operated by independent organizations, which set criteria and award the labels. They are also voluntary. Hence, their success is dependent on market dynamics. Currently, there are several national labelling systems functioning in Europe.

The Nordic environmental label, the Swan Label, shared by Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden was the first multi-national third-party label when launched in 1989 by the Nordic Council of Ministers (Backman, Lindhquist, and Thidell 1995). By the end of 1996 there were more than 800 products in the market carrying the label (JSrvi 1996b). An important feature of the Swan label is the performance criterion. Only products that perform at a certain functional level in their intended purpose can be granted the label.

Many surveys have been conducted on consumer knowledge of environmental labels. In the Nordic countries, survey respondents have been shown the Nordic environmental label and asked whether they have seen the label before and whether they know its meaning. According to most survey results, citizens in Nordic countries are well aware of the existence and purpose of the Swan Label. In a study conducted in 1996, 73 % of respondents in Finland (n=500) knew that the Swan was an environmental label. In Sweden, 89 % were familiar with the label in 1994. According to surveys, the vast majority of consumers find the label reliable and regard the products labelled with the Swan as at least as good in quality as other, non-labelled products (Backman et al 1995; JSrvi 1996a).

However, the actual usage of environmental labels has not been thoroughly investigated earlier. In connection with a study on environmental information in consumer decision making (Niva, Heiskanen, and Timonen 1996), we had the opportunity to investigate in more depth how consumers actually interpret and utilize environmental information when making purchase decisions.

Data and methods

As the study was qualitative in nature, the data were gathered by interviewing 31 consumers chosen from the National Consumer Research Centre’s consumer panel [The panel is comprised of about 1000 voluntary consumers willing to participate in the Research Centre's research projects.]. The respondents, although by no means a representative sample, were chosen to include both men and women of different ages and with different educational backgrounds. Using excerpts from the national environmental attitude survey #Environment 1994’, it was ascertained that the respondents were, in general, similar to the population at large in terms of environmental literacy, attitudes and behaviour.

The main body of the interview consisted of a task measuring the utilization of environmental information in decision-making. Before completion of the task, the fact that environmental issues were of interest in the study was not revealed to the interviewees. The interview method was developed on the basis of verbal protocol analysis (Ericsson and Simon 1984).

The interviewees were presented with two subsequent sets of prducts, laundry detergents and batteries, each including four brands. They were asked to study the products and talk aloud about the package information that they found interesting. Subsequently, they were asked to imagine themselves in a shopping situation, choose one product among the alternatives and tell the reasons for their choice. Finally, they were asked about their actual buying behaviour, decision rules and preferred brands.

The role of environmental information in choice

The interviewees studied the detergent packages enthusiastically, and were interested in various kinds of product information, such as price, environmental information, dosage instructions, declaration of contents and product quality. All the interviewees were interested in the abundant environmental information. Two of the laundry detergents were labelled with the Nordic Swan, while two bore the producers’ own environmental label. Well over half of the respondents mentioned and discussed the Nordic Swan while studying the packages, whereas one-fourth did not mention either of the labels. A few respondents confused the environmental label with the producers’ own label.

Even though the respondents seemed to be extremely interested in the environmental information provided, the actual choice was mostly made on the basis of the price or the presumed quality or performance of the product. One-fifth of the interviewees used environmental considerations as the primary selection criterion. Based on survey results, a somewhat higher proportion of environmental considerations could have been expected. One explanation may be the fact that quite a few interviewees considered the different brands to be equal in environmental quality ("they’re all more or less environmentally friendly these days, aren’t they").

On the other hand, a few consumers consciously excluded the product with an environmentally friendly image from their decision set because they believed that the quality of the product was inferior to the other products. Obviously, a number of consumers are unaware of the fact that the criteria for the Nordic Swan include standards for the performance in addition to environmental considerations.

It was stated on all four battery packages that no cadmium or mercury was present in the products. Two packages bore the German Grnne Punkt -label indicating the German package waste recycling system. There was also the producer’s own green symbol on one of the packages.

Almost all consumers discussed the environmental aspects of batteries, although not quite to the same extent as in connection with laundry detergents. Environmentally harmful substances were of interest, and many interviewees stated that they were unsure of how to correctly dispose of batteries. Some consumers interpreted the green colour, the producer’s own green symbol or the German Grnne Punkt as indicators of environmental merit.

The most frequent decision-criteria for batteries were durability and price. Each of these criteria were used by more than one-third of the interviewees. Durability was frequently attributed to the higher-priced products. Environmental considerations were included in the choice criteria of one-fifth of the respondents. Generally, those who used environmental criteria in their choice were misled by the producers’ use of green images. In reality, apart from different packaging materials, there were no clear indications of the relative environmental characteristics of the batteries.

Quality, price and the environment

It is obvious that for many consumers the appearance of the package and intense advertising of the brand are important determinants of the perceived quality and performance of the product. This applies both to detergents and batteries. Consumers who seeked for quality rather than good bargains are inclined to choose well-known brands wih an image of superior performance. On the other hand, those choosing on the basis of low price often tended to conceive of daily consumer products as being equal in quality, or in some cases saw quality as being of minor importance.

It is interesting to note that the comprehensive investigation of product information in the interview-task generally did not lead to a change in decision-criteria or type of brand chosen. When the interviewees were asked about their usual buying habits, it appeared that the reported choice criteria were very similar to those used in the interview task. Obviously, choice heuristics for daily goods are relatively stable, and are not easily changed, at least not by a single instance of exposure to product information. Most consumers do not have the time or the motivation to acquaint themselves in detail with product information in purchasing situations. Habitual buying and clear and obvious cues guide the choice of products, and the environmental information currently present seems to have difficulties in competing with these primary decision rules. This result is in line with previous studies showing that when buying common repeat purchase products, consumers often apply very simple choice tactics that ensure a satisfactory choice with effortless decision making (see e.g. Foxall and Goldsmith 1994, Hoyer 1984; Kujala 1992, Olshavsky and Granbois 1979).

Quite a few consumers were confused by the profusion of environmental labels and other environmental information and were not aware of the differences between third-party and producers’ own labels. Not even a thorough investigation of the packages revealed the differences to some of the respondents. Some labels caused significant misunderstandings. The Grnne Punkt -label was often interpreted as an environmental label even by those interviewees who had seen the label several times before. Only few interviewees were informed of the meaning of the Grnne Punkt -label and aware of the fact that the label has no significance in Finland.


The barriers to behaving in a more environmentally conscious and pro-active way have been widely discussed in recent years. Often survey studies seem to present a rather positive picture of consumers’ willingness to adopt environmentally sound behaviours. For example, according to an INRA study more than half of Europeans reported having bought environmentally friendly products even when such products were more expensive than conventional products (INRA 1992). In Finland, one study reported that 60 % of the respondents maintained that the environmental characteristics of products have a fairly or a very large effect on their choices (SFS 1995).

In reality, however, the demand for environmentally sound products has not grown as much as these surveys might suggest. According to a British study, the number of green consumers has grown only slightly during the 1990’s, and the share of people who have not changed their consumption patterns despite their positive environmental attitudes, has increased (Wong, Turner, and Stoneman 1996). In our study, only one-fifth of the interviewees used environmental criteria when choosing laundry detergents or batteries (Study 2). The contradiction between words and deeds is obvious. What factors prevent consumers from realizing their attitudes in actual behaviour?

An important barrier clearly is the attractiveness of free-riding behaviour. The state of environment is a collective good "produced" and "consumed" by every individual. A consumer maximizing his or her individual utility behaves according to self-interested rationality, whereas collective rationality requires maximizing the long-term collective utility. Collectively binding norms to influence individuals’ moral responsibility for the environment have been sugested as a means to overcome free-riding incentives (Uusitalo 1990).

Motivation, ability and opportunity are preconditions for environmentally conscious behaviour. For example, Th°gersen’s (1994) modification of the Fishbein-Ajzen model (see e.g. Ajzen 1991) emphasized the importance of ability and opportunity in the relation between attitudes and behaviour. Attitudes, beliefs and social norms are part of the motivational basis influencing consumer’s behavioural intentions. In addition to motivation, consumer’s abilities, i.e. knowledge and habits affect the realization of intentions. Furthermore, to make environmentally benign choices, there must be opportunities to do so. Opportunities can be actual possibilities to act or they may be connected to the person’s expectations. Perception of opportunities may thus depend on the motivation to engage in certain behaviour (e.g. Moisander 1996; Th°gersen 1994).

Th°gersen’s model shows that consumers need information on why behavioural changes are necessary (scientific knowledge) and how they can make a difference in their own lives (practical knowledge). Even if consumers lack knowledge of scientific facts of environmental problems, they may still know about the ways to behave in an environmentally sound manner (Heiskanen and Timonen 1996). However, green behaviour often requires changes in everyday practices and fixed habits, such as the choice processes of low-involvement products.

Consumers can be expected to actively engage in information processing at the time of the purchase decision only if the information is at the consumer’s disposal when it is needed. The information should be trustworthy and presented in a clear, understandable and visible format. Our results show that when many different kinds of environmentally-related labels appear on products, the effectiveness of an independent, neutral third-party label may be reduced. Information on the mere existence of the label is insufficient to guarantee consumer reliance on it. Background information on why certain products are awarded the label and by whom is required to ensure consumers’ confidence.


Consumer sophistication has been defined by Titus and Bradford (1996) as "the extent to which consumers possess and utilize the characteristics and abilities necessary to make efficient consumer decisions and participate in wise purchasing practises". The linking of environmental aspects to production and consumption patterns highlights the importance of consumer sophistication.

The two studies reported above show that consumers are concerned about environment, but the complex causes and effects of environmental problems are often difficult to understand. The level of motivation to take personal responsibility and the abilities to tackle the problems involved differ substantially between different consumer groups. Thus, we would like to divide the concept of consumer sophistication into three components discussed earlier: motivation (the will to make good decisions), ability (cognitive and other skills to make sound decisions) and possibility (i.e. adequate time, information and other resources). This would link the concept of consumer sophistication to the attitude-behaviour models utilized by e.g. Pieters (1991), Th°gersen (1994) and +lander and Th°gersen (1995) in the context of environmentally conscious consumption.

Consumers’ positive attitudes and interest in environmental product information indicate that the prerequisites for market-based environmental conservation exist, despite the fact that consumers’ abilities to process environmental information and their willingness to make efforts in product purchasing situations are not at an equally high level as their attitudes. General communication, fousing on consumers’ motivation to process environmental information, is one solution to this problem. However, an even more important issue is to facilitate the utilization of information, i.e., decrease the costs of information processing by developing information into a more understandable format. This includes also informing about the backgrounds of third-party environmental labels. This is especially important as the European market-place is becoming more and more competitive and international trade can be expected to further increase the product range in local markets.

It may be asked whether consumers are yet sophisticated enough to be able to act as the new guardians of environmental improvement. Citizens in modern society are often subject to conflicting information, at present, e.g., of the probability and the strength of effects of the greenhouse effect. From the consumers’ point of view, the credibility of environmental policy measures is probably mostly determined by the way they perceive the politicians and authorities to take a stand on and act on environmental issues. If citizens regard the credibility of the environmental policy as poor, their own motivation might suffer as well.

Consumers can be an important driving force for environmental improvement. There is cause for enthusiasm in the rise of environmental consciousness of consumers, but this should be tempered with an understanding of consumers’ actual motivation, abilities and opportunities. The prevailing level of consumers’ environmental sophistication is in most cases so low that they cannot be considered competent players in the new "green" market-place. Hence, our findings suggest that both marketers and policy-makers should practise discretion in this area. They should consider carefully the implications of all their activities that involve the "green consumer".


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Mari Niva, National Consumer Research Centre, Finland
Eva Heiskanen, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland
Paivi Timonen, National Consumer Research Centre, Finland


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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