How to persuade people to shop sustainably

What motivates eco-friendly, ethical or sustainable choices in everyday living?

New research suggests that the memory of the pride that followed on from an environmentally friendly decision or a conscious choice is likely to be a far better motivator than guilt while making future green choices. For example, consumers were more likely to buy an electric car after recalling the positive feeling that followed previous sustainable purchases. 

However, the recollection of the negative feeling of guilt associated with past purchases that were not as environmentally friendly did not encourage people to ‘buy green’ in the future.

Strategies that encourage environmentally sustainable choices like flying less or avoiding beef could limit greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change.

Yet, while most people state that being sustainable is important to them, corresponding behavioral change only takes place in a few “deep green” consumers.

woman in a shop, looking at two products, making a selection as to which is the most ethical

What these findings might indicate

These findings could encourage businesses to reconsider the strategies that they use to urge consumers to buy green products and encourage behaviour change such as investing in solar cells and adding insulation to homes.

Lead researcher Hugh Wilson, Professor of Marketing at Warwick Business School, said: “Attempts to encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices have traditionally been dominated by negative emotions, such as guilt and fear. While this has achieved some success, it can have a really bad side effect: people can lose heart and give up.”

He goes on to suggest the following. “Rather than making people feel guilty, it is possible to make people feel good about their past achievements and encourage them to make sustainable choices in future.This is not restricted to choosing which products to buy. It may prove equally useful to promote other sustainable behaviours such as driving less and saving energy at home.”

an electric car with a charger plugged in

How pride helps in choosing the greener car

The research was conducted by Warwick Business School, Cranfield School of Water, Energy, and the Environment and Trinity Business School, Dublin. The paper, Pride in my past: Influencing sustainable choices through behavioural recall was published in Marketing & Psychology.

A sample of more than 300 people were asked what kind of car they would buy next.

The people who recalled the pride they felt after a previous ‘sustainable purchase’ were significantly more likely to anticipate the same feeling of pride about buying a low-carbon car in the future – as well as feeling significantly more guilty if they imagined making an environmentally-damaging choice. As a result, they were significantly more likely to choose a low-carbon car in order to re-experience the same positive feelings of pride.

By contrast, those who were reminded of the feeling of guilt after an unsustainable purchase were no more likely to anticipate feeling proud about buying a low carbon car in future. Nor were they more likely to anticipate feeling guilty about buying a higher-emission model.

ethical coffee beans cupped in hands

How does pride motivate us?

Professor Wilson said: “Pride exists precisely to motivate our future behaviour. People like to get onto a positive spiral. Guilt exists for good reasons, too, but when it comes to the planet, we definitely need to keep some pride in the mix. The environment hitting the news at the moment is invaluable; however, we need to show people that they can contribute positively.”

He went on to say “We also need to conduct further research to check which decisions anticipated pride is best at engendering. For example, many consumers think about carbon when buying a car, but fewer do when buying kitchen white goods. Similarly, they think about social sustainability – such as being fair to farmers – more when buying coffee or tea than soft drinks or alcohol, showing how social forces are a factor in these decisions” 

This article was originally published on the Warwick Business School website, whose London location at The Shard offers an ideal base for executive learning including an Executive MBA and Distance Learning MBA option.