The attitude-behaviour gap is something I’ve written about before. In a lot of contexts, including, say, the purchasing of ethically or sustainably produced items, there is a gap between what people know and feel about an issue (their attitude) and what they actually practically do about the issue (their behaviour). For example, a person might be perfectly aware that a particular brand has been found guilty of using sweatshop labour in their manufacturing line before, and might think that the brand deserves to be boycotted for that reason, but in the end – the person still ends up buying something from that brand. Likewise, people might express the wish to buy less in an effort to minimise their consumption and lessen their impact on the environment, but in the end, for whatever reasons, they might not be successful in buying less.
It’s all too easy to come to the conclusion that this gap exists because people either just really don’t care or aren’t motivated enough to act in line with their attitudes. Certainly, it’s undeniably easier to not bother acting on any concerns you might have, because that might involve doing a lot of research about the possible concerns and issues and then limiting your options and enforcing restrictions – all of this requires much more effort than just not bothering, obviously. However, it actually seems that there are plenty of people who genuinely want to make ethical, sustainable, informed choices, and who would be willing to make a lot of effort to do so. There are simply (or not so simply) lots of external factors that affect whether you can act in line with your attitudes, and these can range all the way from the personal level up to the societal level.
This is one study that identifies and investigates the barriers to informed consumption and consumer choice in a nation that is amongst the more environmentally and socially aware in the world – Sweden. According to the paper, many Swedes are hoping to address consumption issues by aiming to shop less and to purchase more thoughtfully, but there are myriad barriers that are restricting progress in this particular direction. So why is it that some of the most environmentally minded, socially progressive, informed and aware people in the world still can’t always behave in a way that’s consistent with their attitudes? What stops them from consuming less even though they want to consume less?
Obviously, one set of barriers to more responsible consumption would be of the economic/market variety. Price, of course, is an issue – sometimes the more sustainable option is more expensive, and that will always limit who can take advantage of that option. Availability is an issue, too – sustainable options can be difficult or effortful to track down, and only a limited range might be available. And trust is an issue – consumers may doubt whether a product is genuinely sustainably or ethically produced, since recent history has shown that no shortage of companies and retailers are happy to capitalise on the appearance of being more eco-friendly rather than making genuine and profound efforts. Such economic/market barriers were identified as being personally relevant by the majority of the 58 Swedes that were interviewed in depth for this particular study.
There were also political barriers (e.g. people felt the Swedish government was putting the onus on the individual consumer to make the right choices instead of making efforts to regulate or punish companies and retailers who weren’t trying to provide sustainable options), informational barriers (e.g. there was a lack of information available to enable consumers to make an informed choice, or the information that was available was overwhelming and depressing) and lifestyle barriers (e.g. a lack of time to consider a choice and then hunt down the most sustainable option).
Within the lifestyle barriers, it was encouraging to note that very few people interviewed cited lack of interest or being unwilling as a reason to not make an effort to reduce consumption and make thoughtful choices. Only 11 out of 58 interviewees mentioned that, and only 5 out of 58 interviewees said that it was “easy to say and not do” – any lack of action isn’t because people don’t want to try. Of all the categories of barriers, these lifestyle barriers were the second most commonly mentioned reasons for not fully pursuing a more sustainable mode of consumption. So what was the most common category of barrier?
Social barriers, actually. It might seem like lack of time or high prices or a dearth of options might be the biggest reasons for not “down-shifting” and trying to minimise one’s consumption, but for the people of Sweden who want to do this, social expectations and pressures play a major role in holding them back.
Interviewees described how social barriers often restricted their desire to consume less, because not engaging in consumerism can be seen as anti-social. As the author of the paper says:
In fact, the largest number of barriers mentioned, and particularly in reference to anti-consumption and shopping less, can be classified as problems of sociality. This observation reminds us that consumption fulfills an important social function in our societies, helping us to signal belonging, mutual understanding, and adherence to shared societal norms and cultural logics. Today those of us living in complex post-industrial urban societies have little choice but to build our identities around symbolic objects that strangers can easily understand – possessions.
As such, parents felt the need to consume in a certain prescribed way so that their children didn’t become ostracised or ridiculed by peers, and the interviewees explained that they personally worried about deviating from the social trend of consumption because so many other people wouldn’t understand their motivations – they worried that people would “consider them missionaries, self-righteous, or living in bad taste” or “they think that you are poor or that you’re not well educated, that you don’t have nice taste or that you are not successful.” All legitimate concerns, regardless of how much an individual might tell themselves that the opinions of others don’t or shouldn’t matter.
As to why social barriers are the most commonly identified set of barriers restricting more sustainable behaviours, the paper identifies Sweden’s cultural conformity as a factor – “one likely rising out of a history of ethnic homogeneity and bolstered more recently by the legacy of a social welfare state has which long emphasized equality, fairness, and solidarity. [...] Indeed many Swedes find it stressful to imagine living in a manner significantly different from their social peers, regardless of how much they adhere to environmentalist values. They suggest that it is simply too hard to go against the grain of Sweden’s social logics, ignoring shared definitions of an adequate standard of living, necessary conveniences, and notions of good taste.” This paper doesn’t discuss the potential applicability of this assumption beyond the Swedish population, but I imagine it would be relevant to many other cultures and countries, to varying extents. Those of us in such societies feel pressured to display our beliefs and values and tastes and attitudes via our possessions, and to opt out of doing so is to risk others misunderstanding or ridiculing your motivations. We are an inherently social species, and avoiding social ostracism is a deeply ingrained trait.
It is encouraging to think that the resistance to reducing consumption as being a product of many external pressures – social ones to a large extent – rather than any sort of laziness or ignorance or disinterest or fecklessness that people might possess. It means that if the attitude gains sufficient momentum, and acceptance of it gradually spreads further and further, attempting to consume in a more sustainable and responsible manner might become easier and easier for more and more people, even if its adoption never becomes pandemic due to the very human traits that underlie the social compulsion to communicate through possessions.