Inside the Mind of the Sustainable Consumer

After reading a particularly compelling book or viewing a shocking documentary about the environmental impacts of daily life, some people might decide to make a drastic lifestyle change. However, these resolutions often fizzle out after mere weeks, or even days. So how is it possible that there are people who make radical lifestyle changes and sustain them?

Efforts to promote sustainability are often still seen as being on the fringes. For example, vegan diets have a reputation for being difficult and expensive. However, many issues are gaining traction. For example, Starbucks banned plastic straws, and replacements for plastic straws, such as metal straws or strawless lids, have become more common. As more sustainable behaviors become the norm, it is more likely for an individual to reason that a lifestyle sacrifice (time, convenience, or mere preference) is worth making in order to fit in with the new “rules” of society.

 In general, social norms are a large part of why we act the way we do, and they have far-reaching implications for sustainability-related behavior. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary, normative social influence is what causes people to act in accordance with societal norms in order to avoid negative social consequences such as being isolated from society. Studies have shown that normative social influence is an effective way to promote sustainable behavior. People can also internalize group norms and then work to align with them. This means that if people live in a society that has certain rules of behavior, they are likely to act in accordance with those rules.

Social factors are more likely explanations for green behavior than individual personalities in most instances. According to UCLA professor Magali Delmas, “people who really care about the environment for the environment are a very tiny minority.” This does not mean, however, that green behavior and self-identity have no relationship. Research has shown that one’s behavior, as well as that of people around them, can influence their identity. 

A paper in BioScience mentions that this kind of effect has likely happened for recycling, which has become a norm even though it is not heavily enforced by governments. If green actions such as recycling are the norm, then people may see themselves as morally inferior if they do not take part. Moreover, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people are more likely to behave sustainably if they see themselves as part of an ingroup that acts sustainably. If not for staying consistent with their own personal values, people may at least be acting in a way that is consistent with the values of people they identify with. Additionally, people may be worried about being judged if they do not participate in the most “acceptable” behaviors. If actions such as recycling become the baseline of acceptable behavior, more people will engage, regardless of whether they are heavily motivated by the greater, long-term environmental goals of the action itself. 

According to research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, descriptive norms, or information about what other people are purported to typically do, may be more effective at promoting sustainable consumer behavior than other motives such as self-interest. It is likely, though, that norms and self-interest are interconnected. People may consider descriptive norms in order to learn the “rules” of their ingroup, and then be driven by a motivation to be held in high regard by people they identify with. Marketing scholars Todd Green and John Peloza found that consumers sometimes buy green products with the goal of being seen in a positive light by others. 

Although it is not as salient a factor, some people may act more sustainably than others because their personality predisposes them to do so. People who are more altruistic—who regularly exhibit behaviors that help others at a cost to themselves—may have an easier time taking action even if they do not see any direct personal benefit (as is often the case with environmental advocacy). Because climate activism can seem indirect, it is likely that highly altruistic people would have an easier time working towards big picture aspirations with no personal gain. Additionally, they would be more willing to make sacrifices in their daily lives, such as changing their diets and consumption habits, in order to work towards a goal that they may not see the benefits of in their lifetimes. But if altruism were the only explanation for sustainable behavior, there would be little hope for the effectiveness of environmental education. Fortunately, social norms play a much larger role than altruistic personalities.

Focusing on social networks and processes instead of only individuals is vital to understanding how and why people act the way they do. This is true not only theoretically, but also when considering how to get consumers to act in a more eco-conscious way. Marketing researchers Katherine White, Rishad Habib, and David Hardisty propose a model called “SHIFT” to get consumers to make more environmentally friendly decisions. Published in the Journal of Marketing, the model suggests considering social influence, habit formation, individual self, feelings and cognition, and tangibility when crafting messages related to sustainability. A thorough understanding of the human psyche is not only an interesting look into why people do the things they do, but also a meaningful guide to encouraging sustainable behaviors in the future.


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White, K., Habib, R., & Hardisty, D. J. (2019). How to SHIFT consumer behaviors to be more sustainable: A literature review and guiding framework. Journal of Marketing, 83(3), 22-49.

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