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Sustainable consumer behavior is the sub-discipline of consumer behavior that studies why and how consumers do or do not incorporate sustainability issues into their consumption behavior. Further, it studies the products that consumers select, how those products are used, and how they are disposed of in pursuit of their individual sustainability goals.
From a conventional marketing perspective, consumer behavior 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 behavior needs to be understood as a whole since a product affects all stages of a consumption process.
The buyer decision process or consumer decision process is described in three or five stages. The basic, three stage model  of consumption describes obtaining, consuming and disposing of products and services. The study of consumer decision making, however, expands these into five stages first described by John Dewey in 1910
- Problem recognition
- Information search
- Evaluation of alternatives
- Purchase decision
- Post purchase behavior
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.
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 behavior that they usually do.
In this stage, maintenance, repair, use frequency and type of use are of interest. For 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.
Post-purchase behavior may also include disposal where 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 the production process. This phase has become significantly important due to the overloaded landfill.
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 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 behavior, but it is also a 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 behavior 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 of consumers in determining sustainability impacts during the use and disposal phases of the consumption process, their overall behavior will also strongly influence the sustainability performance of all goods and services.
There exist some inconsistencies in consumers’ behaviors.
Despite the significant increase in consumers’ environmental awareness, many of them have not taken their concerns into consideration in their actual consumption choices and behaviors. 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.
A survey was conducted in October 2020 by McKinsey & Company in 10 countries (primarily in the U.S.) to determine the important factors individuals consider while deciding to purchase a product. Sustainable packaging was not highly considered compared to price, quality, brand, convenience, as well as food safety and health in regards to the pandemic.
There is a discrepancy between what behavior consumers think is socially and environmentally sustainable and what behavior 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 behavior 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 the general environmental impacts of consumption.
In the same survey conducted by McKinsey & Company 60-70% of people reported to be willing to pay more for sustainability and 35-36% would buy sustainable products if these products were available and better labeled as such. These results go to show that there is a knowledge gap which prevents people from making the best choices. Consumers rely on perception and may make ignorant decisions. For example, cereal in a cardboard box is considered to be more environmentally friendlier than cereal in a bag, even though the bag contains less packaging as the box also contains a bag inside. The outward appearance of the recyclable cardboard masks the plastic inside.
This emphasizes the economics of sustainable consumption, and how consumers weigh up the functional benefits and relatively affordability of a product and service. behavioral models based around economical rationality tend to assume a high degree of self-interest on the part of the consumer.
As a complement to rational explanations for consumer behavior, there has been research into the psychology of sustainable consumption and more emotional and irrational explanations of our behavior. 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.
Our behavior 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.
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` behavior. The most advanced form of sustainable consumption behavior is among those identified as voluntary simplifiers, whose lifestyle is based around five key values:
Involving consuming fewer products and services, and tending to seek out products that are resource efficient, durable and with a reduced ecological impact.
Following the principle 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 needs, or even to influence what those needs might be.
In terms of conservation of resources and reduction of waste in order to protect the environment.
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.
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 behaviors 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 behaviors and production systems will become oriented toward sustainability, but initially significant progress would be achieved through:
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
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).
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 behaviors, it means seeking tourism offerings that try to protect the global and local environment and also the cultures within tourism destinations.
Individuals may experience a state of motivational imbalance in which they believe a particular choice has positive personal outcomes but is subject to disapproval by important social referents or that choice does not comply with one’s moral standards. Motivational imbalance can generate further ramifications on consumer sustainable choices.
behavior change in consumption is nowadays becoming a guiding principle for sustainable development policy. However, switching unsustainable consumer behaviors to sustainable demanours is far from straightforward. Individual behaviors 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 behaviors regardless of having best intentions.
Making sustainable consumption choices are significantly related to the role of habit and routine behaviors. 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 behavior, 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 behavior. 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 behavior is more or less automatized and bypasses rational deliberation almost completely.
In many cases, people appear to be locked into behaviors and behavioral 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 behavior: these are examples of technological and behavioral change occurring in only a decade. The sorts of changes are a kind of ‘creeping evolution’ of social and technological norms. Individuals alter their behaviors and sometimes individual behavior 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 behaviors informed by some kind of understanding of the dimensions of and possibilities for behavioral change.
Sustainable consumer behavior 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 behavior can contribute to progress toward sustainability, but progress also depends on supports from deeper changes occurring within consumer lifestyle and throughout society.
There are now many media that support consumers in making their lifestyles more sustainable.