Monthly Archives: March 2012

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Social barriers to sustainable consumption

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.

Learning to judge quality

Above is a graph from a relatively old paper that investigated the relationship between quality and price in an example garment – in this case, the research looked at women’s blazers. One hundred and nineteen blazers were assessed in terms of quality by two experts: one a university faculty member who taught textile science and the other a university class instructor who was previously a buyer for a department store and who taught clothing construction. Quality is on the x-axis and price is on the y-axis, with each dot-point representing a particular blazer. What you can see is nothing terribly surprising – there’s some sort of vague positive relationship between quality and price, so quality kind of goes up as price goes up, but it’s not a neat relationship. It’s quite noisy, really. And keep in mind this graph is from 1989, so clothing quality might have changed quite a bit relative to price over the past 23 years, with advancements in manufacturing techniques, the advent of fast fashion, developments in textile production, changes in brands and markets and profit expectations; all those sorts of things.

Whatever changes have occurred since that graph was published, it’s likely still safe to say that we’re probably on the money (or not, literally speaking) when we think that price is not necessarily an accurate indicator of quality.

But what do we use as indicators of quality? In fact, what are we even looking for when we search for quality?

We kind of all have a vague notion of what we mean when we say that we want to buy good quality garments – it means we want the garments to stay in good condition for a decently long period of time, to not have issues or wear out or fall apart to any significant extent. That’s all well and good, but that’s the sort of quality that you can only measure once you’ve already purchased and worn the garment. It’s easy to judge an item’s quality in retrospect (“Well, it was good quality, because it lasted really well!”) but it’s much much harder to judge an item’s quality in advance and get a good idea of how it will hold up in the future (“Oh this garment is good quality, so it will definitely last well!”). That is, it’s harder for people with little or no experience or training in garment construction and manufacture.

There are all sorts of information cues we can use to evaluate the quality of a garment, from intrinsic cues (e.g. fabric fibre content, seam type) and extrinsic cues (e.g. brand name, price) to aesthetic cues (e.g. colour, fit) and performance cues (r.g. durability, care instructions). The interesting thing to consider is: which cues are important to a person who has limited knowledge of garment construction and manufacture, and which cues become or remain important after that person has extensively learnt about garment construction and manufacture? What are naïve people getting right (if anything), and what things would be more important to them if they had a more extensive understanding of what genuinely makes a good quality item of clothing?

Some research has looked into exactly that. The study looked at the effect of knowledge on the types of information cues used to evaluate the quality of clothing. Sixty-five students were surveyed regarding which cues they considered most important in judging the quality of a garment. These 65 students had something in common: they were all enrolled in and about to start a 15-week course at university about the analysis of ready-to-wear clothing. Prior to starting their course, they were asked which cues were important, and then at the end of the course, they were asked the same again.

How did knowledge of clothing manufacture and construction change people’s ideas about which cues were important when judging the quality of clothes?

Cues that became quite a bit more important to more people after improved knowledge of garment construction and manufacture:

  • Fibre content of fabric
  • Interfacings
  • Length of stitch
  • Patterns (e.g. stripes, plaid) matched
  • Seam width
  • No mismatched thread
  • Type of fabric
  • Type of seam
  • Width of hem

Cues that became quite a bit less important to more people after improved knowledge of garment construction and manufacture:

  • Brand
  • Closures
  • Colour
  • How fashionable the garment is
  • Fit
  • How the fabric feels
  • Price
  • The store selling the garment
  • Whether the style suits one’s figure

You have to be careful with the interpretation of these results, since it’s just about the relative change in ranking of the different cues – for example, “fit” may have dropped in the rankings of importance after the course compared to before, but it might still be towards the top of the rankings. Maybe it dropped from being the 2nd most important cue to being the 7th most important cue out of the 24 cues investigated, so while it did become less important, it’s still considered pretty important overall. All the same, this study shows how much your perspective can change when given adequate information, and at the very least, it certainly makes me aware of all the cues that might matter if only I knew.

This did make me figure something out, though: the sort of information you need to be able to evaluate quality can’t be accessed so easily, possibly because there’s so much of it. There aren’t many web guides to quality garment construction because there would be just so much information to cover. But if the internet doesn’t have the information, how about we go back in time and use something a bit more old-fashioned: textbooks. That would certainly be a convenient option for accessing this sort of information. Well, it would be a more convenient option if textbooks weren’t always so expensive, particularly since the one I’ve found that seems most relevant isn’t in any convenient library catalogues and isn’t priced any better than retail on eBay. But maybe spending a bit of money on an undoubtedly useful and highly informative textbook would be quite a wise investment.

Using research to improve online auction results

Society is facing a huge problem in terms of the amount of waste it generates. The best option for disposal of your unwanted items is to extend their lifespan (if they’re in good enough condition) by giving them away to people you know or selling them to people who want them, rather than chucking them out or donating them to charities. For a lot of people, selling online is one option, which often means online auctions. I’ve seen a lot of people mention that they feel like online auctions aren’t worth the effort (all the taking of photos, the measuring of dimensions, the dealing with very fussy buyers, the listing and selling fees, etc.) but if you’ve got a decent item that you want to get rid of, selling it through an online auction is possibly one of the more responsible, sustainable things to do.

As such, I’d like to encourage people to sell through online auctions by providing some guidelines that might increase the likelihood of a successful auction, courtesy of good old scientific research on the topic.

There’s been a bit of empirical research looking at what factors in an online auction influence things such as potential bidder interest, bidding activity, and most critically, the final sale price. Some of those factors aren’t within the control of sellers, such as how many bids an item receives early on during the auction, or simply how interesting or valuable in general your item is perceived to be by others. However, some factors are within sellers’ control, and I’ve summarised the research findings below, paper by paper, regarding what the potential risks and pay-offs are for a seller if they make particular choices for their auction.

“Individual and social determinants of winning bids in online auctions”

  • This paper found that the number of photos of the item included in the auction indirectly influences the number of bidders and possibly increases the final sale price. So, the more pictures, the more first-day bids, which encourages more bidders overall.
  • The greater the number of first-day bids, the higher the winning bid. I guess this seems unsurprising, if you consider the number of first-day bids to be an indication of the level of interest in the auction. The authors suggest this is due to herd behaviour, since the early bids indicate that the item is popular which in turn makes other people more interested in it. It implies that the item is of value. This isn’t something you can influence as a seller (unless you’re dummy bidding, which you shouldn’t be doing) but it’s something that’ll help you gauge the likelihood of a successful auction along the way.
  • The higher the starting bid price, the higher the winning bid. The other papers I’ll mention in a moment will explain this a bit further, but in the case of this particular paper, it is suggested that that higher starting prices act as indicators of the item’s quality – you might be a bit wary of an item if the price is too cheap, since that might suggest it’s a fake. However, this doesn’t just mean you can always set your auction starting price as high as you like, since if the price is too high, it will discourage bidder traffic and there may end up being no bids at all on the auction. You can use a higher starting price to indicate value, but it still has to be relative to what people are actually willing to pay.
  • Since a greater number of images seems to encourage more first-day bids, which encourages more participation and interest in the auction and seems to result in higher winning bids, it is possibly worth using the maximum number of images permitted (except in the case of very low-cost items). However, this doesn’t mean that more is necessarily more – there might still be an optimal number when it comes to how many images to use. However, this research seems to suggest that you certainly don’t want to skimp on the images for your auctions.

“Behavioral outcomes from online auctions: reserve price, reserve disclosure, and initial bidding influences in the decision process”

  • This paper looks a bit at the role that reserve prices play in online auctions. Some eBay platforms don’t allow for reserves (Australian eBay.com.au and I think also German eBay.de, and possibly others) but fear not – there’s still information to be gleaned from the research even if you can’t impose reserve prices on your auctions.
  • This paper found that a low reserve price results in more overall interest in an auction and a higher final sale price, when compared to a high reserve price (relative to the price of the product).
  • The disclosure of a reserve price also results in more potential bidder interest, which increases the likelihood of a higher final sale price.
  • Given the previous two points – the ideal situation would be a low, disclosed reserve price, e.g. $1. This is also relevant to anyone using an eBay platform that doesn’t allow reserves, since a low, disclosed reserve price is equivalent to a low starting price – they’re both situations in which the interested potential bidders know that the price at which they could obtain the item is potentially quite low, and this stimulates interest in the auction.

“Determinants of Internet Auction Success and Closing Price: An Exploratory Study”

  • This paper found that using a reserve price resulted in a lower probability of auction success, but for auctions that were successful and did have reserves, the final sale price was higher. Again, the authors suggest that having a reserve indicates quality to potential buyers – the item is valuable, therefore the seller doesn’t want it going too cheaply. However, having an unknown reserve price is a bit of a gamble, as potential bidders see this as a decrease in the probability that their bid will be the winning one. Some people employ rules about which auctions to bid in, and as such may decide to entirely avoid auctions with unknown reserves. They may engage in price aversion strategy, meaning they don’t get involved with auctions with reserves as it makes it riskier that they will unexpectedly incur higher expenses or losses than they had anticipated – they don’t have enough information to base their decision on regarding whether bidding is likely to turn out more expensive than they planned, so they avoid the auction completely.
  • This paper also found that a higher starting price resulted in a lower probability of auction success but a higher average closing price for auctions that were successful. Again, price indicates quality. However, a high opening price might scare away potential bidders. The good thing about a low opening price is not only that it gets more people interested in the auction since they’re all considering their potential to land a bargain, but that it also provides more information to the bidders – more people will bid due to the low price, which gives everyone the chance to see how popular the item is and how much people are willing to pay for it.
  • A low opening price can also encourage what is known as “bidding momentum” – the bidders start bidding at the low prices and they get caught up and invested in the auction, possibly even going so far as to imagine their future ownership of the item. This in turn makes them more likely to keep bidding, and possibly bid more than they originally would have. As multiple people become invested in the auction, the try to outbid each other and generate momentum that might push the final sale price higher.
  • This paper also investigated whether auction duration affected the probability of the auction’s success or final sale price, hypothesising that a longer auction might allow more people to become interested, but it doesn’t seem to generally be the case. It may depend on the item.

“Buying, Bidding, Playing, or Competing? Value Assessment and Decision Dynamics In Online Auctions”

  • Elaborating on the idea that a low starting price could result in more interest and a higher sale price, this paper looked at whether a low starting price would encourage the “herd” behaviour mentioned above, or rather an “anchoring” effect. Anchoring would mean that potential bidders would see the initial low price and then judge any price increases relative to that – so if an item was listed for $5 and the bidding gets the current highest bid up to $10, the other potential bidders might then think “Well, it was a bargain at $5 and I was happy with potentially paying that price, but I’m not willing to outbid $10 because that’s twice as much as what it was”. Their evaluation of the price is anchored to the original starting price. This means that bidding momentum might not build up and the herd behaviour might not occur, meaning the final sale price doesn’t end up being particularly high.
  • So if the conditions are right and the right people with the right prices in mind are involved, a low starting price might result in a bidding war on your item and a higher final sale price. However, this paper found that even when there were a lot of bidders due to a low starting price, it was not necessarily sufficient to create momentum or a bidding war.

As you can see, the research doesn’t necessarily offer any clear-cut, obvious strategy to guarantee a maximal final sale price in an online auction, mainly because there are so many other factors that simply can’t be controlled – the nature of the item you’re selling, the number of people interested in the item, their individual bidding strategies, etc. Including plenty of photos and disclosing your reserve, if you have one, seem to be good ideas, but when it comes to the other factors that you do have a say in, most of the possible choices involve a trade-off. You can set your starting price and/or reserve price high to indicate the quality of the item, but then you risk decreased interest in the item and a lower likelihood of a successful auction, although if you do end up with a successful auction, the final price is likely to be higher than it otherwise would have been. Alternatively, you can set your starting price and/or reserve price low to generate interest in the item, but then that could go either way: it could result in herd behaviour where people consider the item to be valuable because lots of other people are interested in it which could result in people feeling invested in the item, competitive bidding, bidding momentum and possibly a higher final sale price, or it could result in anchoring effects and even though you’ve generated a lot of interest with the low starting price, people are still only willing to make still relatively low bids. Or people could be suspicious of the low price and think that it’s an indicator of something dodgy. So yes, it’s a bit of a minefield, but now you know a bit more about how to negotiate the risks and how to make informed choices about factors in your auctions.

The paradox of choice

I’ve been reading about the paradox of choice: the notion that, while choice is essential to your happiness and well-being, too much choice can be overwhelming, confusing, and create feelings of anxiety, depression and perpetual dissatisfaction. While freedom of choice is possibly a fundamental requirement for our well-being, the sort of choice we’re presented with as consumers these days – millions of different products, services, plans, whatever – is so incomprehensibly large that decision-making can become arduous, incredibly time-consuming, stressful, and fraught with angst and regret.

The idea of too much choice being a bad thing has been explored pretty extensively in the psychological research (including some intriguing experiments involving copious amounts of chocolate and jam) and its most high-profile champion is Professor Barry Schwartz, an American research psychologist. His summary of the scientific research and his personal thoughts on the premise, its causes and its consequences come together in his popular book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

I’ll leave you to make up your own minds about Professor Schwartz’s opinion regarding the abundance of choice (there’s a TED talk here of him discussing the paradox of choice, or a Radiolab podcast featuring Schwartz discussing how much choice is too much here, or you could try to get hold of the book). I think the psychological research underpinning it is very sound, but I have my reservations about how generalisable it is to the overall real-life experience of being a consumer in a consumerism-driven society (Schwartz is usually specifically referring to American society, but it’s obviously relevant to varying extents to many others).

For example, I’m not sure that people generally feel “tyrannised” (Schwartz’s word) by choice in a lot of the situations that the paradox of choice is supposedly applicable to. As sophisticated consumers, I think we’ve generally developed strategies and guidelines that help us deal with making choices – we head for brands we’re familiar with, we’re guided by our likes and dislikes and budget, and Schwartz’s emphasis on the sheer number of options available to us (e.g. the 175 different types of salad dressing he has counted in his local supermarket) doesn’t change the fact that not all of those options are in contention when making a choice – most of them will be screened out by personal tastes, brand preferences, price, and lots of other factors. We’ve surely learned to navigate more astutely through our sea of options and aren’t at the mercy of the staggering magnitude of choices presented to us. Sometimes the quest to find the ideal thing can be, well, a bit fun.

I think we can to some extent take pride in our ability as consumers to actually assess an abundance of information and extract some sort of sound answer from it, which doesn’t seem to be exactly how Schwartz pictures the average consumer. Schwartz mentions that his desire for a simple jeans-purchasing experience was thwarted by the flurry of questions the salesperson threw at him – slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, extra baggy, stoned-washed, acid-washed, distressed, button-fly, zip-fly, faded, regular? He says he was stunned by this. Really, though? Is it not relevant that you could probably actually answer all of those questions, given a moment’s thought?

Anyway, the point is that Schwartz does make some good recommendations at the end of his book about how to stay happy with the choices you have made, or to at least increase your chances of staying happy. I think these could be pretty helpful to consider when trying to be a more thoughtful, responsible consumer – the happier you are with your past purchases, perhaps the less likely you are to feel the need to make new, potentially wasteful, pointless or redundant purchases.

Anticipate adaptation
If you experience something regularly enough, you adapt to it – the novelty wears off, it doesn’t seem quite as exciting as before, the hedonic thrill just isn’t quite there any more. Anticipating this adaptation – reminding yourself before a purchase of an item that it won’t always be as fantastic – will allow your to remain content with your purchase, even if it doesn’t seem quite so thrilling any more. (This kind of ties in with this post of mine about research showing that people usually predict that a purchase will make them happier than it ever does, and don’t realise after the purchase has been made that it hasn’t made them as happy as they thought it would.)

Make your decisions non-reversible
It seems eminently sensible to try to buy things that you can return if you’re unhappy with them, rather than things you can’t return. Everyone likes the reassurance provided by a good returns policy. Actually, giving yourself that freedom to return an item you’ve chosen can make it more likely that you’ll consider returning it, even if you could have otherwise been happy with it. You’ve got the option to return it, so you’re at liberty to criticise it and analyse it and try to find flaws with it, which might ultimately make you more dissatisfied than you otherwise would be. I’m not sure that this recommendation of Schwartz’s would actually affect buying behaviour or even make people feel better about ever buying “final sale, no returns” items, but it’s worth thinking about – the mere possibility of being able to reverse your decision may be enough to make you doubt it when you might otherwise have actually been happy with it.

Practice an “attitude of gratitude”
It might sound a bit touchy-feely but it’s really quite sensible. It just means that we should try to make the effort to focus on the good aspects of what we did choose, which will make us feel more satisfied than dwelling on the good aspects of whatever we didn’t choose. If we don’t think about the things we passed up, we stay happier with what we’ve got, so try to appreciate the good aspects of what you do have.

Curtail social comparison
We humans have a tendency to compare ourselves to others. Sometimes that’s constructive and motivating, but sometimes it’s just pointless and makes us dissatisfied, because we think about how someone else owns something we don’t have or how we want to buy something in order to show off something about ourselves. We end up in a not-exactly-constructive mentality of buying things we don’t need in order to broadcast something about ourselves to everyone around us. And when it comes to things we don’t need, as Schwartz says “remember that ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’ is a bumper sticker, not wisdom”. It’s perhaps easier said than done, but try to limit making those sorts of social comparisons, because usually they’re simply not necessary or constructive.

I think the above few points are pretty useful to remember when trying to be a circumspect, responsible consumer (even if some of the points are a bit self-evident, but sometimes a reminder is necessary). But as for Schwartz’s opinion in general of how to deal with the paradox of choice, I simply cannot get onboard with the notion that “the secret to happiness is low expectations” as he says in that TED talk of his, since his main way of dealing with too much choice is to arbitrarily limit choices – don’t look in more than two shops for a pair of jeans! – and then settle for “good enough” rather than knocking yourself out on the quest for “perfection” and then angsting over whether something else even more perfect (impossible by definition, but whatever) exists. I don’t think the majority of people behave that way (or if they do it’s only in specific areas of their lives, so it’s not negatively impacting their lives on the whole), especially since consumers are surely learning and adapting to this new environment of immense choice, and new generations will consider such choice a way of life.

And I think the enormous range of choice means that we can at least asymptotically approach finding “perfection” and the satisfaction that comes with it (if we use the right strategies and have enough time).