Being a green consumer is hard work, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The study highlights a need for more practical help and incentives for green consumers, if we are to achieve a more sustainable society.
The University of Leeds-led study found that consumers who try to live a sustainable lifestyle have difficulty deciding which product to buy. "Consumers find that being green or ethical is a very hard, time consuming, and emotional experience," says Dr William Young. Apart from the usual issues such as price, reliability, and colour, they have the added complication of researching and weighing up all the environmental and ethical issues before purchasing a product, he explains.
Dr Young and his colleagues interviewed green consumers about their recent major purchasing decisions for goods such as fridges and computers as well as their more routine shopping habits.
These interviews, together with several focus groups, uncovered three different types of green consumer.
Selectors are probably the largest group of green consumers in the UK population. These consumers are only green in one aspect of their lives. A selector may be an avid recycler or pay a premium for green energy but sees no contradiction in leading an otherwise consumption orientated life.
Translators, are green in some aspects of their lives. They are prepared to make a certain amount of sacrifice in order to do what they perceive is the 'right thing'. But they do not actively seek out the information that they need to work out what the 'right thing' is.
Exceptors are the greenest of all. Their personal philosophy about consumption makes sustainability a priority in every aspect of their lives.
Exceptors do a lot of research for every product that they buy. But they are often unsatisfied with their final decisions because they have had to compromise on many of their values to resolve the multitude of competing issues they faced: "Their heart wants to go one way, but their head goes another," says Dr Young.
All three groups found it relatively easy to make green decisions about their food purchases, preferring to buy organic, fair trade or locally sourced food. But the story was different for the one-off decisions they made to buy domestic appliances and other household electrical goods.
For all but the greenest group of consumers, the environmental performance of a one-off major purchase decision was often traded off by price. And most green consumers did not even consider ethical issues when making decisions about less expensive products such as toasters or mp3 players. They found it hard to find any information about these products and thought it was not worth the time and effort involved.
"Consumers are very confused about what issues are important," says Dr Young. "They need clear directions."
The researchers found that all groups of consumers used and trusted the EU Energy Label that must be displayed on white goods and they suggest that similar scales, such as an A-G energy rating for all electronic products, could be helpful.
But consumers need more than just education to encourage them to choose green alternatives, Dr Young warns. Without financial incentives, it is unlikely that green consumer power will force industry towards more sustainable practices.
1. The research project 'Trade-offs in decision making for sustainable technologies' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The lead researcher Dr William Young is at the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds. The other members of the research team were Dr Seonaidh McDonald, at The Robert Gordon University and Dr Caroline Oates at the University of Sheffield.
2. Methodology. The researchers conducted 81 in-depth interviews with green consumers between April 2004 and April 2005. Focus groups involved an additional 11 consumers. Consumers were recruited from a variety of sources in the Leeds area including organic box schemes, the local Friends of the Earth group, a Quakers group, Buddhist Centres, and through news items in two magazines (Ethical Consumer and Pure). Interviewees were asked to describe in detail the decision process they used for recent purchases of domestic appliances or household electrical goods as well as their more routine shopping habits.
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