Green Consumer Behavior– Part I: Information Paradox

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by: David Wigder

Understanding consumer behavior is critical for any marketer, and is especially important in regard to environmental products and services. 

More than one hundred years of consumption theory – across a wide range of academic disciplines including economics, psychology and sociology – makes it clear that there are many different motivations and influences that drive consumer behavior.  Professor Tim Jackson at the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey (Guildford, UK) provides a comprehensive summary of this history in his Motivating Sustainable Consumption, a report to the Sustainable Development Research Network, a Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (UK)-funded initiative designed to link research and policymaking in the area of sustainable development. 

Clearly every marketer knows that material goods and services serve multiple purposes to consumers.  They have functional uses in terms of meeting basic needs such as subsistence and protection.  Additionally, they serve symbolic purposes that, according to Jackson, help consumers “facilitate a range of complex, deeply engrained ‘social conversations’ about status, social cohesion, group norms and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning.”  Moreover, motivations for purchase may vary from being deliberate in intent to more of an expression of “habit, routines, social norms and expectations, and dominant cultural values” 

Conceptual models enable green marketers to obtain a deeper understand of what motivates consumer behavior and drives change.  Quite simply, these models:

  • Provide “heuristic frameworks” that help conceptualize “social and psychological influences on both mainstream and pro-environmental consumer behaviour.”
  • Enable ways to empirically determine the correlation between “different kinds of relationships in different circumstances.” 

Not surprisingly, there is much debate as to which frameworks best explain consumer behavior in the green space.   At a very simplistic level, theorists tend to wrestle with seemingly conflicting social-psychological motivations that include, but are limited to: 

  • Rational choice vs. less-than-rational choice (eg, emotional response, mental short-cuts)
  • Individual self-determination vs. social conformation (eg, context, constraints, expectations)
  • Internal antecedents (eg, values, attitudes, intentions) vs. external antecedents (eg, incentives, social norms, institutional constraints)

As such, no single framework can explain consumer behavior all of the time, nor should we expect that it could.  Nonetheless, frameworks provide a robust starting point for understanding consumer behavior and how to influence it through our marketing efforts.  

One counter-intuitive observation that Jackson made is that of the Information Paradox: People want to “feel in control of their lives and resist feelings of helplessness.”   More information, however, may not empower them.  In fact, it may have “precisely the opposite effect.”   

This paradox is noted in the academic literature. From an evolutionary perspective, Kaplan and Kaplan (”The Visual Environment”, Journal of Social Issues, 1989)  observes that humans want “to participate, to play a role, in what is going on around them” but do not want to feel “incompetent and helpless” when they do.  Kaplan (”Human Nature and Environmentally Responsible Behavior,” Journal of Social Issues, 2000) revisited this issue declaring that helplessness is a “pivotal issue” in understanding consumer motivation and behavior.  Kaplan writes, “A situation in which people cannot act effectively, in which they cannot solve the problems they face or cannot implement the solutions they come up with, is likely to be extremely distasteful. In other words, people would be expected to avoid contexts that they consider conducive to helplessness. And since this is a cognitive animal, one would expect an avoidance of even thinking about realms that evoke feelings of helplessness. Thus, in this perspective, helplessness would be one of the most important motivational issues to consider in the context of behavior change.” 

A study by UK-based Research International (RI) in 1993 (as cited in “Too Green for their Own Good” by Gary Levin, Advertising Age, April 12, 1993 and Kaplan, 2000) provides empirical evidence that supports this observation.  As part of this effort, RI conducted focus groups with more than 900 participants in 29 countries.  Simon Chadwick, RI’s CEO, summed up the survey results as follows: “The more you know, the less you know how to deal with it.”  In fact, participants with the highest awareness of environmental issues (US, Canada, Germany, Netherlands and Norway) also had the highest levels of anxiety based on a sense of helplessness.   As Chadwick continues, consumers “are looking for clarity of information that can lead people to make decisions.”  Yet “the more information that is pumped out…the more contradictory it seems, and the less people are able to translate that information into knowledge.” 

For green marketer, the stakes are high.  Taking the Information Paradox into account when planning all environmental campaigns – from building public awareness to driving product sales – will result in effective consumer behavior change, rather than paralysis.  Suggestions for marketers: 

  • Simplify message and prioritize action steps.  For example, when tackling global warming in public awareness campaigns, focus on action steps that offer the most impact rather than present a laundry list of things that could be done
  • Do not overwhelm consumer with negative statistics. Use to create sense of urgency, but balance with positive impact from taking action.
  • Facilitate “participatory problem solving” to motivate desired behaviors by enlisting people to be a part of the solution (Kaplan, 2000).  For example, tap brand enthusiasts that can help inform the creation of education-related marketing materials or even product design.
  • Track and report on results – on an individual or collective basis – to create a sense of accomplishment.  Use to attract new participants.  For example, tracking net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from hybrid car or renewable energy use may motivate others to participate rather than remain on the sidelines.
  • Celebrate success.