Special Session Summary Consumer Values, Behavior and Sustainable Development


John Thogersen (2001) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Values, Behavior and Sustainable Development", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 207-209.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 207-209



John Thogersen, Aarhus School of Business, Denmark




John Th°gersen, Aarhus School of Business, Denmark



Dai-Yeun Jeong, Cheju National University, South Korea



Patrick Mullins, The University of Queensland, Australia



The purpose of this special session was to shed light on the importance of consumer values for obtaining support for and active participation in a move towards sustainability. A key question in the discussion was whether the foundation of environment-friendly consumer behaviors in "environmentalist" values depends on national culture and/or stage of economic development


At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, "altering consumption patterns" was called "one of humanity’s greatest challenges in the quest for environmentally sound and sustainable development" (Sitarz, 1994). The Summit action programBAgenda 21Bis probably the most forceful international expression to date of the serious concerns generated by the unsustainable consumption patterns and life styles of the rich; both because of its global environmental impacts and because of the unequal andBfrom the point of view of third world countriesBinequitable international distribution of consumption opportunities (Grubb, Koch, Thomson, Munson, & Sullivan, 1993). Some of the most serious environmental problems facing humanity are related to unsustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles enjoyed by people in the industrialized countries (Durning, 1992; Stern, 1992). And at least based on currently known technology, it seems outside the Earth’s carrying capacity to allow the people of China, India, or other large populations in the developing world to imitate the consumption patterns in the North (Durning, 1992; Goodwin, Ackerman, & Kiron, 1997). Durning (1992) suggests that a sustainable standard of living is somewhere between that enjoyed by the richest and the poorest fifth of the World’s population. However, most evidence indicates that it is not in this direction that development is proceeding. Rather, it seems that people in the fast growing industrializing countries actively emulate the consumption styles of the richest fifth, and that many in the poorer countries are eager to follow the same path (Gallagher, 1997). However, the theoretical and empirical basis for judging whether such emulation actually takes placeBor for predicting the evolution of consumption patterns in poor and medium income countriesBis still rather weak (Wilk, 1998). Much more research into the dynamics and environmental consequences of consumption pattern change is needed; in these as well as in rich countries.

In the richest countries of the World, politicians are starting to acknowledge that not only the composition of consumption, but also its volume, is unsustainable. If widely accepted prognoses for the growth in global consumption are realized, a factor 4 or greater reduction in the environmental impact per produced unit is needed in the next 40-50 years just to keep the total environmental impact at the current level (Milj°styrelsen, 1996). When realizing that at least in some areas, previous decades have witnessed technological and structural changes in production and consumption with an environmental impacts-increasing bias (Th°gersen, 1996; Uusitalo, 1986), it looks disturbingly like a Sisyphus task to strive for sustainable consumption while allowing the volume of consumption to grow. In order to reach a sustainable development path, the wealthiest fifth of the world population may well be faced with the challenge of both radically changing their consumption patterns and curbing several areas of consumption, as suggested by several environmental organizations (e.g., Lafferty, 1994; see also Goodwin et al., 1997).

In order to reach the sustainability goal within a foreseeable time horizon it is undoubtedly necessary to attack the problems in a variety of ways and to use all available means in a reasoned and coordinated way (Gardner & Stern, 1996). The means include incentives, information, public investment (in public transportation, among other things), and research and development (primarily in cleaner technology and products) (Norwegian Ministry of Environment, 1994). Several researchers have claimed that intrinsic motivationBan environmental ethic or internalized values with relevance for a large number of behaviorsBis a prerequisite for the establishment of a sustainable consumption pattern (Gray, 1985; +lander & Th°gersen, 1995; Environmental Resources Limited, 1993; Norwegia Ministry of Environment, 1994). It has been a core objective of this special session to explore the substantive content to this claim.


The objective of the special session was to explore how consumer support for and active participation in a move towards sustainability is related to their values. A second objective was to explore whether the relationship between values and environment-friendly behavior is contingent on cultural idiosyncrasies and perhaps also on stage of economic development. The latter was made possible by having papers from three countries (and continents), including both industrialized (Australia and Denmark) and industrializing (South Korea) countries. All papers were based on surveys with large, random samples of ordinary consumers.

Values and experience in the development of a sustainable consumption pattern

The paper by John Th°gersen, the Aarhus School of Business, Denmark, investigated whether the value-to-behavior process or the behavior-to value-process dominates in the development of an environment-friendly consumption pattern. The data comes from a two-wave panel study with a random sample of 1,090 Danish consumers, collected in November 1998 and November 1999. Structural equation analysis with a cross-lagged panel correlation design is used to test the direction of causality (Bagozzi, 1980). When auto-regressive effects (of a variable on itself, measured on different occasions) are controlled only cross-lagged effects linking two concepts are significant. The significant cross-lagged effect link the priority given to the motivational value domain that Shalom Schwartz (1994) calls "universalism" and environment-friendly behavior (the performance of 17 environmentally significant consumer behaviors, treated as a formative variable). Of the two cross-lagged paths linking these concepts, only the one from universalism (time 1) to behavior (time 2) is significant, indicating that the direction of causality goes from values to behavior.

Besides that this is consistent with what is generally assumed, the size of the relative stabilities of the two concepts adds face validity to this finding. Both of the auto-regressive effects (stabilities), but particularly that of universalism, are strong.

The confirmation of a causal influence from universalism to an environment-friendly consumption pattern implies that promoting the right values through socialization and national institutions can facilitate the achievement of the long-run goal of sustainable consumption. However, another important finding is that the cross-lagged effect is much weaker than the auto-regressive effect of past behavior. This indicates that in the short run the extent of environment-friendly consumer behavior depends much more on more specific factors, such as habits, specific attitudes and preferences, andBnot leastBopportunities of environment-friendly action.

Consumerism and environmentalism, consumption and environmental behavior in Australia and South Korea

Due to sudden illness, Patrick Mullins, the University of Queensland, Australia, was unfortunately not able to be present in the session. Although Dai-Yeun Jeong, Cheju National University, South Korea, drew on some of the Australian material, the absence of one presenter unavoidably narrowed the perspective. The papers by Dai-Yeun Jeong and Patrick Mullins considered the relationships between two components of contemporary culture (consumerism and environmentalism) and two different forms of contemporary behavior (consumption and environmental behavior). Consumerism refers to the contemporary imperative that we consume more and more goods and services, and we should be doing this increasingly for fun and enjoyment. It is the core component of the contemporar cultures of the more developed world and, increasingly, of the less developed world as well. Environmentalism, a weaker cultural imperative, demands that we act in an environmentally sustainable way. In contrast, consumption is the actual acquisition of goods and services, while environmental behavior refers to behavior that contributes towards sustainable development.

The two papers draw upon 1999 survey data: a stratified sample (N=1250) from South East Queensland (SEQ) and a random sample (N=500) from Cheju, South Korea. Both areas are characterized by a rapid growth in population and economic prosperity, and both are important centers of tourism in their countries.

The results are particularly interesting when contrasted. In South Korea, but not in Australia, the expected positive correlation between consumerism and consumption is found. On the other hand, in Australia, but not in South Korea, the expected positive correlation between environmentalism and environmental behavior is found. Both studies find a negative correlation between consumerism and environmentalism, as expected. In Australia, but not in South Korea, consumerism is negatively correlated with environmental behavior. In neither of the studies are consumption and environmental behavior correlated.


Besides clarifying some technical details of the studies, the main discussion centered on differences between results found in the three studies. Particularly on the finding that in South Korea, as opposed to Australia and Denmark, there is seemingly no correlation between environmentalist values and the performance of a number of behaviors judged to be environment-friendly. It was suggested that activities, such as saving water and energy, repairing rather than replacing, using public transportation rather than private car, and many others, that are often perceived as expressions of environmentalism in industrialized countries, may be perceived as expressions of frugality in less economically advanced countries. It was also emphasized during the discussion that, in all cultures, most behaviors serve multiple motives and that environmental concern and frugality may co-determine many environment-sensitive behaviors. Health concerns may also play a role, for instance for the buying of organic produceBan item included in the Danish environmental behavior index. However, the point was made that non-environmentalist motives for behaving in an environment-friendly way are likely to be more specific and, hence, to vary between behaviors. If the goal is to promote an overall sustainable consumption pattern, it is important to identify (and strengthen) values that are directly related to thatBfairly generalBgoal.


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John Thogersen, Aarhus School of Business, Denmark


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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