Trisha Shetty (Editor)

Sustainable consumer behaviour

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Sustainable consumer behaviour is consumers’ behaviors that improve social and environmental performance as well as meet their needs. It studies why and how consumers do or do not incorporate sustainability issues into their consumption behaviour. Also, it studies what products consumers do or do not buy, how they use them and what they do with them afterwards. One mechanism to spread information about sustainable consumer behaviour is word of mouth.


From a conventional marketing perspective, consumer behaviour has focused largely on the purchase stage of the total consumption process. This is because it is the actual point at which a contract is made between the buyer and seller, money is paid and the ownership of products transfers to the consumer. Yet from a social and environmental perspective, consumer behaviour needs to be understood as a whole since a product affects all stages of a consumption process.

Know the difference between need and want

Need and want recognition occur when a consumer senses a difference between what he or she perceives to be the idea versus the actual state of affairs.

There are three key sources for searching information, in other words personal, commercial and public sources. Especially, the mass media, which is a public source, increasingly provide information about the environmental costs and benefits of consumption. Consumers become aware of them through these sources.

Evaluation of alternatives

In this stage, environmental concerns which are expressed as environmental costs, risks and benefits, will contribute to the evaluation of options in deciding what to buy. One way to evaluate more sustainable consumption is to consider the total customer cost which incurs in acquisition, use and post-use phases.


Consumers have to trade off the environmental benefits against other attributes such as higher price, better performance and better design. In addition they may need to change the manner of behaviour that they usually do.


In this stage, maintenance, repair, use frequency and type of use are of interest. Some key products such as homes, cars and domestic appliances, much of the sustainability impact accrue after the purchase phase during use or post-use. Again, this is why the total consumption process approach is needed.


In the final stage, consumers can keep, reuse (for example by selling, trading or giving a product to others) and dispose of a product. Some materials such as paper, glass, metal can be recycled or reused in production process. This phase has become significantly important due to the overloaded landfill.

The Consumer Behaviour Influence

Buying and consuming an individual product, like a cup of coffee on the way to work or class, might seem such a trivial action that, although it refreshes us, it leaves no lasting impression or memory. However, that action will combine with those of other consumers to contribute to the economic success of the coffee retailer, the overall growth in the economy and the volume of waste with which local government must deal. It will influence the demand for, and the price of, coffee beans and milk, and in doing so will influence the lives and prosperity of thousands of farmers throughout the world, and shape their investment and planting decisions for next year. It will have knock-on impacts in terms of the demand for pesticides, fertilizer, packaging materials and energy. The economic impact of that coffee will contribute to the future share price of the retailers and the levels of income and investment they will enjoy. At a national level, it will contribute to national prosperity and in doing so will influence the future policies on taxation and interest rates.

We tend to think of consumption as an economic phenomenon that addresses our individual wants and drives the economy through our collective behaviour, but it is also social and cultural process through which we all express our identity and establish our place within society. It is also a physical process that literally consumes resources. What we eat, how we heat our homes and how we travel to work or for pleasure may seem like nobody`s businesses except our own. However, the collective consequences of those consumption decisions, and the ways in which our needs are met, are a principal driver behind climate change that will have consequences for people, countries and species across the globe.

Consumers’ purchasing behaviour will determine the success or failure of new products and services that are marketed on the basis of their sustainability performance. Because of the role consumers in determining sustainability impacts during the use and disposal phases of the consumption process, their overall behaviour will also strongly influence the sustainability performance of all goods and services.

Attitude, Knowledge and Behaviour Gap

There exist some inconsistencies in consumers’ behaviours.

Attitude and behaviour gap

Despite the significant increase in consumers’ environmental awareness, many of them have not taken their concerns into consideration in their actual consumption choices and behaviours. This can be due to consumers’ selfishness, which is they don’t want to give up or change the way they live, or the associated costs and taxes.

Knowledge and behaviour gap

There is a discrepancy between what behaviour consumers think is socially and environmentally sustainable and what behaviour actually is. For instance, many people in the U.S. limit their use of spray cans as they want to minimize their contribution to the impact on the ozone layer. Their behaviour is not environmentally significant because the substances that affect the ozone layer have already been banned in the U.S. long ago. This can be due to consumers’ lack of knowledge about general environmental impacts of consumption.

Rational explanations

This emphasizes the economics of sustainable consumption, and how consumers weigh up the functional benefits and relatively affordability of a product and service. Behavioural models based around economical rationality tend to assume a high degree of self-interest on the part of the consumer.

Psychological explanations

As a complement to rational explanations for consumer behaviour, there has been research into the psychology of sustainable consumption and more emotional and irrational explanations of our behaviour. Much of this focuses on consumers` attitudes and beliefs about sustainable issues. Three important sets of attitudes that influence consumers willingness to engage with sustainability issues are perceived personal relevance, social responsibility and trust.

Sociological explanations

Our behaviour as consumers is not simply a reflection of the rational dimensions of the costs and benefits of a particular consumption activity and what we know about it, nor is it fully explained by how we perceive the consumption activity as an individual. It is also explained by how we think our consumption activities will be perceived by others, and how that might be reflect and influence our place in society.

Forms of Sustainable Consumption Behaviour

Progress toward more sustainable consumption is therefore not simply a question of what products and services are purchased, it is about the adoption of a lifestyle in which sustainability is reflected in all aspects of consumers` behaviour. The most advanced form of sustainable consumption behaviour is among those identified as voluntary simplifiers, whose lifestyle is based around five key values:

Material simplicity

Involving consuming fewer products and services, and tending to seek out products that are resource efficient, durable and with a reduced ecological impact.

Human scale

Following the principal of "small is beautiful" in tending toward working and living environments that are smaller, simpler and less centralized.


Through a reduced reliance on large commercial businesses, or even large public-sector organization, to meet one`s need, or even to influence what those needs might be.

Ecological awareness

In terms of conservation of resources and reduction of waste in order to protect the environment.

Personal growth

Emphasizing the creation of satisfaction through experiences and development of personal abilities instead of commercially provided consumption experiences.

In recent years many of the key traits of voluntary simplification have been exhibited in a less extreme, but more widespread way, through the phenomenon of downshifting. Downshifting involves a change of lifestyle and consumption patterns that exchange a relatively highly paid/lower stress but more rewarding, and shifting to a lower level of material consumption but a higher level of quality of life and personal satisfaction.

Sustainable Consumption Choices

From a sustainability perspective, we know that all types of consumption are not equally important in terms of their sustainability impacts. Greater progress may come from focusing on consumption behaviours linked to those products with the most significant impacts. The European Environmental Impact of Product Project provides a rigorous analysis of research into the environmental impact of products consumed by households. The project`s input-output-based methodology assesses 255 domestic product types against a wide range of environmental impacts. It concludes that 70-80% of total impacts relate to food and drink consumption; housing (including domestic energy use); and transport (including commuting, leisure and holiday travel). Ideally, all aspects of our consumption behaviours and production systems will become oriented toward sustainability, but initially significant progress would be achieved through:

Sustainable food and drink consumption choices

Consumption level that are more conductive to health; a reduced consumption of meat products due to their contribution to climate change; choosing organically produced and locally sourced, seasoned produce; and greater composting of biodegradable food waste

Sustainable housing consumption choices

Including more emphasis on purchasing homes constructed using sustainable materials and choosing and creating homes with high levels of insulation and energy efficiency. This also involves energy usage within the home based on sustainable energy source, and the avoidance of energy waste while living in the home (e.g. through energy-efficient refrigerator and energy saving bulbs).

Sustainable travel behaviour

Which may mean reducing the amount of travel undertaken (e.g. through home-working or teleconference service) or finding alternative transport means for journeys such as cycling for leisure rather than driving. In terms of tourism consumption behaviours, it means seeking tourism offerings that try to protect the global and local environment and also the cultures within tourism destinations.

Toward behaviour change

Behaviour change in consumption is nowadays becoming a guiding principle for sustainable development policy. However, switching unsustainable consumer behaviours to sustainable demanours is far from straightforward. Individual behaviours are deeply rooted in social and institutional contexts. We are influenced by what others around us say and do, and by the institutional rules as we make choice on our own. In fact, we have been already locked into unsustainable behaviours regardless of having best intentions.

Making sustainable consumption choices are significantly related to the role of habit and routine behaviours. Habits can be thought of as procedural strategies to reduce the cognitive effort associated with making choices, particularly in situations that are relatively stable. They allow us to perform routine actions with a minimum of deliberation and often only limited awareness. Moreover, the evidence suggests that habit is a crucial component in a wide variety of environmentally-significant activities: travel behaviour, shopping patterns, household chores, waste disposal, leisure activities, and even personal hygiene. Habits are formed through repetition and reinforcement. Andersen (1982) identifies three stages in the formation of a new habit. The first stage, or declarative stage, involves information processing relating to a particular choice or action. At this stage the attitudinal and affective responses to this information are both important. The information challenges the existing choice, but at this stage does not actually change coffee-buying behaviour. In the second knowledge compilation stage, however, this information is converted into a new routine by exercising a different choice in practice. When the action itself is associated with a clear positive reinforcement, and repeated over time, a ‘cognitive script’ is developed which enables to repeat the same action in similar circumstances with very little cognitive effort. This final procedural stage locks into a new coffee-buying habit and virtually without thinking now the ethically traded coffee is tossed into the supermarket trolley week after week. At this stage, the behaviour is more or less automatized and bypasses rational deliberation almost completely.

In many cases, people appear to be locked into behaviours and behavioural patterns that seem to be resistant to change. In fact, they are changing continually and sometimes radically in a short period. The uptake of smart phones, widescreen plasma TVs, standby modes in electronic appliances patterns of holiday travel and travel behaviour: these are examples of technological and behavioural change occurring in only a decade. The sorts of changes are a kind of ‘creeping evolution’ of social and technological norms. Individuals alter their behaviours and sometimes individual behaviour initiates new social trends. At some higher or deeper level, in other words, individuals find themselves responding to societal and technological changes that are initiated elsewhere. Therefore, we should develop policies to encourage pro-environmental and pro-social consumer behaviours informed by some kind of understanding of the dimensions of and possibilities for behavioural change.

Sustainable consumer behaviour is a complex and evolving subject, and simply answers rarely provide substantive progress toward creating a more sustainable society. From a sustainable perspective, consumption needs to be understood more holistically as a total process, as part of a broader consumer lifestyle and as a process that is strongly influenced by the social context in which it takes place. Individual changes in purchasing behaviour can contribute to progress toward sustainability, but progress also depends on supports from deeper changes occurring within consumer lifestyle and throughout society.


Sustainable consumer behaviour Wikipedia