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.

12 Thoughts on “Social barriers to sustainable consumption

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing this!

    I see myself in quite a few of the findings. I remember very clearly the day I realised this in myself –

    “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.”

    I came to realise this was not how I want to identify myself and I’ve been trying, often unsuccessfully, to move away from this. This runs contrary to my interest in personal style, which is why it’s a struggle. I think that’s why classic clothing has such great appeal for me – I like the idea that I own things that transcend fads and frivolity. Still I’m trying to appreciate what I already have more, rather than yearn for more things.

    I don’t know if I am this optimistic, since even among friends, there are few have shown interest in this issue. But it does encourage me to not give up trying to get them to pay more attention to these things when they shop.

    • I think those of us who like classic styles of clothes are pretty lucky that we feel that such clothes fit in with our personalities, because even though we’re still kind of beholden to this notion of expressing ourselves through our appearance and our possessions, at the same time we don’t have to worry about changing it and updating it constantly in order to not feel out of date or out of touch. Additionally, we arguably get the bonus of having a more practical wardrobe since the classics are classics precisely because they’ve stood the test of time by being practical and appropriate for a wide range of contexts and lifestyles. Seems like the best you could objectively hope for, if you’re going to live in a society that judges you by your clothes.

  2. The thing about this kind of hurdle is that it’s a first-step hurdle. Not that it’s not serious. I know I also had issues with it because I saw shopping as a social activity and what were my other options? (Which saddened and embarrassed me to think.)

    But then after that is out of the way, then what are all the other challenges that are STILL in the way and harder to surmount? In my circle, ethical consumption is usually valued (I think a lot of vegans connect the dots). But even so, no one has a great solution to ethical shopping when it comes to procuring new items you can’t find at resale places. There are a few pieces in every wardrobe but who has fantastic success with this (without being rich)?

    It’s an interesting concept and I think it’s encouraging that this issue is totally surmountable when it comes to cultural shifts but I cringe at what the next hurdle is! It’s the pessimist in me talking, I suppose.

    • Yeah, I think that these pressures and barriers will decrease over time (to varying extents) and some will perhaps disappear completely while others might unavoidably remain. It seems like the attitudes are gradually shifting, but there will be more difficult issues to confront – e.g. ethical consumption is never going to be an option for people living under or close to the poverty line, and given how prevalent poverty is even in so-called first world countries, it seems we’ve got a pretty long effort ahead of us to first and foremost afford people a basic quality of life. When that incredibly ambitious goal is achieved, then from it would perhaps flow many more positive developments, including more people being in the position to consume more responsibly. Until then, experiencing barriers to consuming responsibly is pretty much a privileged person’s problem.

  3. I can remember when my daughters were all of high school age, this conformity was a huge factor in their thinking. Now as adults, they view my thrifting more favorably.

    As I read I was reminded of a law made in the UK when inexpensive cottons from India became widely available. They tried to pass a law requiring their citizens to wear the wool that was produced in the UK, in spite of the greater comfort of the cotton in some temperatures.

    In some ways, I hope it does not come to making laws…or we’ll all be wearing uniforms.

    • I kind of cringe with embarrassment to think back to how many things my mother was right about when I was younger that I was too influenced by my peers or society or the media at the time to appreciate! But that’s kids for you (I used to work in childcare, so I’ve had a few years’ experience in trying to help kids deal with those sorts of pressures) and it’s encouraging to remember just how much they change as they mature.

      Yeah, I think there are many ways in which legislation at the governmental level could end up being the wrong way to deal with this, but only a very small minority of people in the study mentioned that sort of political notion or said that the government should take greater responsibility. I’m sure there could be a happy compromise in which the government didn’t force anything upon the people but did mandate, for example, that clothes manufactured in Sweden need to include a tag that discloses the country of origin for each garments constituent fabrics.

  4. Interesting observations; I can certainly see similarities in the consumerist habits of Swedes and Finns. I keep witnessing a sense of “buy now that you can”-type of mentality back home in Finland. A lot of my previously-not-so-well-off but societally/politically/environmentally conscious friends have gone on nonsensical spending sprees after their careers (and incomes) have become steady. Some of my acquaintances have had children and all of a sudden they spend money on random stuff like there’s no tomorrow. The phenomenon is interesting because Finns have a reputation of being a little stingy. They don’t like to be in debt, saving one’s money is considered a virtue, and spending a lot of money on stuff is considered frivolous in general.

    • The social/sociological researchers sure do love their Scandinavians – I’ve got another paper here about the consumer identities of Finns! Pretty much tallies with what you’ve described.

  5. I have a friend who owns a diving company and whenever I hang out in their circle, they make it very clear that they are against the killing of shark’s for their fins (a Chinese delicacy). The more I am around them, the more I was “influenced” and I eventually gave it eating them too. Be it with fins or any other ethical consumption, once the line is drawn, it is easier to follow through.

    This is a social push – a revolution that must take place first in our own minds and then transmitted to our next generation.

    • Absolutely, I can’t help but think that even though things might not look particularly encouraging in terms of how people’s attitudes are changing in regard to current critical issues, there will be a more pronounced shift in the future as the next generation becomes old enough to get into the positions of power to do something about the issues that they’ve grown up being aware of.

  6. Fabulous post, and thanks for summarizing so nicely the main points of the paper. It’s interesting to know that there is a deep-seated social hardwiring behind that urge to hit the mall/net-a-porter.

    I’ve been a fan of “What Not To Wear,” the TV show that makes over women who are completely ignoring the impact that their appearances have on the people around them. While sometimes it’s disheartening to realize just how superficial we all are, I like the empowerment that the show tries to impart; basically just saying that you should acknowledge the way that the world works, and then use it to your advantage. I’m glad that sociologists are backing this up with actual research!

  7. Thanks for another enlightening post. The Scandinavian focus is interesting … I believe that Sweden and Finland are particularly culturally homogeneous? (The homogeneity is something I’ve come across in a totally different context, while studying maths education (Scandinavian countries do very well in comparative international education tests, which leads UK politicians to say things like “we should see what they do in Finland and do it here!” completely ignoring the fact that the UK is very culturally diverse and therefore hugely different from Finland)).

    I do find that the occasional emphasis in the media on having a small, wearable wardrobe helps support my decisions to try and limit what I buy … e.g. Gok’s Fashion Fix, which included a segment putting together a capsule wardrobe of 24 items, or anything about capsule wardrobes really. While I don’t think I have a capsule wardrobe or particularly want one, I like the message that “a small number of clothes is sufficient and desirable”.

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