IntroductionIf economic activities and processesare a major contribution to environmental degradation (Peattie 2010; Bertoli etal 2014; Hwang 2010), then sustainable consumption would ideally be anefficient remedy. However, past studies have found that high environmentalknowledge rarely increases green consumerism (Fuhrer & Kaiser 2003; Agyeman& Kollmuss 2002; Peattie 2010; Kibert 2000). If this is the case, whatprevents consumers from applying their awareness of environmental issues totheir purchasing behaviors? In addition, what methods can be used to close thegap between environmental awareness and action in terms of sustainable consumerism?This research review takes these questions into account and studies the reasonsconsumers choose so-called environmentally friendly products, as well as whythey choose conventional (or less sustainable) products. It concludes withsuggestions for improvement for both consumers and producers.BackgroundSustainable consumption is definedin this review as consumption that occurs with the intention of lessening one’senvironmental impact.
Because both unsustainable levels and varieties ofconsumption are a major contribution to environmental degradation (Peattie2010; Bertoli et al 2014; Hwang 2010), it would stand that “greening” ourconsumer practices would be a crucial part in creating sustainable societies.The possibility of a so-called “green economy” has not gone unnoticed. Greaterand more widespread awareness of environmental issues has led to consumerdemand for green products, and such products have become more readily availableas a result (Bertoli et al 2014; Lawrence et al 2002). However, literature onthe viability of green consumerism presents mixed results of the effects ofsuch green products and consumption. One particularly important and validcriticism is that green consumption may encourage less environmentally harshproducts, but does not address the fact that developed societies rely onexcessive consumption, which is an unsustainable practice in itself (Peattie2010; Roberts & Straughan 1999; Muldoon 2006). However, it is possible thatgreen consumption has lacked a significant positive environmental effectbecause of the so-called “green gap”. The green gap refers to the gap betweenknowledge and behavior that is present when consumers who are aware ofecological degradation and resulting ecologically friendly products do notchoose such products over less sustainable options (Agyeman & Kollmuss2002).
Green consumption and the resulting green gap is a convoluted topic dueto the variety of different behaviors (and drivers for those behaviors) thatoccur during the consumption process. This is only exacerbated by the manydifferent categories of green products that can be consumed (not all greenproducts are targeted towards the same environmental issues.) For instance,Peattie (2010) notes that there is the possibility of a divide between thedesires for and the effects of green consumption, which has not often beentaken into account in past literature. Similarly, Lawrence and colleagues(2002) posit that, rather than consumers being either green or brown, they cantypically be described as both due to the opportunities and priorities thatoften rival each other during the consumption process.
Past research has, however,attempted to understand and categorize the topic. According to Roberts and Straughan(1999), the green gap has been studied namely from demographic andpsychological perspectives. With the exception of gender (females tend toconsume more green products than males), they found that demographic indicatorshave not proven to be very relevant in green consumption. In contrast, psychologicalindicators, although a somewhat newer area of study, have provided some tellingresults. It is worth noting that past research methods have been recognized asbeing flawed. For instance, Fuhrer & Kaiser (2003) note that sloppystatistical procedures can provide misleading results, and Agyeman (2002) state that pro-environmental behavior in general is so complexthat attempting to understand it from the lense of only one framework isunrealistic. It is worth noting, therefore, that inconsistencies in researchresults regarding green consumption may be due to flaws in methodology of theresearch literature.
MethodsThis research review relied on 19studies total. 5 of these studies provided a theoretical perspective onsustainable consumption as a whole, as well as the reasons behind and limits togreen consumption and how this contributes to the green gap. The remaining 14studies served as case studies for practical insights and implicationsregarding green consumption and the green gap.
These studies focused on thedifference between environmental awareness and action, and were searched forsimilar successes and failures regarding factors that both hinder and encouragegreen consumption. They were also searched for methods to improve anydeficiencies regarding ways that sustainable consumption can be increased andimproved. The case studies and theoretical studies often overlapped, andtherefore connections were found between the theory and application of thetopic.
These studies were found throughthree online databases: Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and Sophia Search. Thefollowing search terms were used: “greenconsumption; green consumerism; sustainable consumption case study; greenconsumerism case study; green consumerism case study; the green gap problem;green knowledge-behavior gap; green purchasing behavior; environmentalawareness and action gap; environmental knowledge-behavior gap case study;environmental knowledge conservation behavior; responsibility for theenvironment “ecological behavior”.” The compilation of studies wasnot restricted to a specific geographic or cultural region or a particular typeof market. This was done in order to attempt to provide more holistic results.Explaining the Green GapThree main commonalities were foundin this review regarding why the green gap exists. This review categorized themas: (1) layers of knowledge and behavior, (2) green consumption as sacrifice,and (3) structural blocks.
They will be discussed in this order.Layers of Knowledge and BehaviorIt is now generally accepted withinthe literature that increased knowledge of a particular topic doesn’tnecessarily coincide with altered behavior (Fuhrer & Kaiser 2003; Agyeman& Kollmuss 2002; Peattie 2010; Kibert 2000). Should that suggest thatknowledge has no impact on behavior then, and that attempts at increasing greenconsumption should be focused elsewhere? This review found that knowledge isperhaps not the sole factor when increasing sustainable consumerism but is byno means negligible. This is because it is not only awareness of environmentalissues that increases behavior; rather, it is different layers of environmentalknowledge that lead to behavioral adjustment. Fuhrer & Kaiser (2003) callthis “convergence of knowledge”, putting forth that a variety of types ofknowledge converging towards an environmental goal is what increasesecologically friendly behavior. In particular, this review posits that there isa difference between environmental education for awareness and environmentaleducation for action. The promotion of a certain behavior is as much a form ofknowledge as the promotion of awareness of a certain topic. If environmentaleducation focuses solely on ecological issues and not on behaviors that can betaken to improve them, then that environmental education would likely havelittle effect on behavior.
Peattie (2010) muses that environmental knowledgeregarding ecological issues and the effects consumption has on such issues needto be considered two distinct categories in order for them to be understood andacted upon.This review found that knowledge -including layered knowledge – was not the only predecessor to environmentalbehavior however. Holistic knowledge works with other psychological indicatorsand drivers towards ecologically friendly behavior. Bowler and colleagues(1999) considered a combination of knowledge, values, and responsibility toinfluence pro-environmental behavior. Chang and colleagues (2012) found that acombination of three factors, named “green consumption attitudes”, “greensubjective norms”, and “green perceived behavioral control”, strongly andpositively influenced sustainable consumer behavior.
Similarly, Kaman Lee(2010) found three indicators influenced sustainable consumption: impact bypeers was the strongest, involvement in the local environment was the secondstrongest, and concrete environmental knowledge (or knowledge that was focusedon action) was the third strongest. Regardless of whether only knowledge wasconsidered in a study, or if knowledge was considered with other factors, theresults of this review found that the aspect of “layers”, or several types ofcomprehension and drivers, strongly influenced behavior. Knowledge by itself,or only limited forms of knowledge, did not.Green Consumption as Sacrifice While combining varying types ofknowledge may create stronger sustainable consumer behavior, the fact stillstands that consumption relies heavily on action rather than only premeditatedthought. When it comes to putting green consumption into practice, this reviewfound that sustainable consumption was often viewed as a sacrifice in a waythat unsustainable consumption was not. Bowler and colleagues (1999) note that”abstinence of consumption is usually done at one’s own expense.” It istherefore assumed that to consume in a sustainable way, one must be “missingout” on a certain product and/or experience that comes with that product.
Boivinand colleagues (2012) expands on this by stating that a variety of perceivedrisks is responsible for the green gap. In particular, functional (productineffectiveness), financial (fear of paying more while getting less), andtemporal risks (a longer amount of time put into researching and purchasingproducts) were considered to hinder sustainable consumption. These risks wouldentail a greater amount of effort on the consumer’s part to determine whetheror not products were worth the purchase.
Within the studies the notion ofexcessive effort was especially present. Hwang and colleagues (2010) found thattime and mental effort into researching (as well as making a decision about)sustainable products were significant blocks to sustainable consumption.Frederiks and colleagues (2014) call this “shortcuts through mental complexity”.Consumers choose the type of products in which the least amount of mental andtemporal effort (and therefore sacrifice) is involved.
This appears to lead tothe idea of compromise or tradeoffs where green consumption is concerned, evenfor consumers who would identify as “green”. Therefore, there is both a seeminglack of motivation for green consumption as well as conflicting motivations.For instance, Lawrence and colleagues (2002) found that an array of conflictingmotivations could discourage consumers from purchasing organic food. Theseincluded, but were not limited to, unsustainable consumption being stronghabit, safety and quality of organic food, as well as skepticism regarding thesustainability of organic food and whether or not purchasing it would actuallymake enough of a difference on the environment. Similarly, Connolly &Prothero (2008) found that compromise was accepted as a necessary evil amonggreen consumers, even those who were strongly aligned with theirpro-environmental values (e.g. by joining environmental groups, or boycottingcertain businesses).
Green consumption could therefore be viewed as somethingof a chore or struggle. Rather than consistently choosing so-called greenproducts or consistently “brown” ones, consumers often ricocheted between thetwo on a daily basis. As such, consumers could be described neither as simply”green” nor “brown”, but rather a combination of both. Therefore, a combinationof environmental education without action and a lack of research and effort on thepart of consumers leads to a gap between environmental awareness andenvironmental action.Structural BlocksSomething that has been ignored inthe research literature is the importance the structure in which greenconsumption occurs. Individuals and their respective consumption choices haveoften been the focus of green consumption studies (Kaman Lee 2010; Muldoon2006), with little focus on the availability and practicality of consumingsustainably. Of course consumption is often done in an individual manner, butindividual consumption is influenced by the wider social setting (Spaargaren2003).
The idea of consumption and its effects being structural is perhaps bestexemplified by Csutora (2012) who found that so-called brown consumers had lessof a negative impact on the environment with their consumption practices thanconsumers who purchased with the intention of reducing their impact on theenvironment. This study found that consumers who were environmentally unawaretended to act in a more environmentally friendly way in terms of electricityuse and transit practices than their environmentally aware counterparts. Thiswas because they consumed less thantheir environmentally aware counterparts, who typically had higher incomes. Itwas therefore a structural and socioeconomic determinant that determined greenconsumption, although the consumer was unaware of it.
“Structure” of course means thatwhat is provided by producers, or what is able to be consumed, could actuallybe described as sustainable. Spaargaren (2003) puts forth that the availabilityof sustainable options was a key determinant in consumers “greening” theirconsumption in term of energy, waste, and water. Similarly, Hwang andcolleagues (2010) found that “situational factors” were important indetermining green consumption. These factors included, but were not limited to,lifestyle, experience with different products and services, and livingsituation. This review therefore found that a lack of “layered” knowledge andbehavior, along with sacrifices associated with green consumption, exacerbatedby sustainability not being a priority in structured consumption, contribute tothe green gap.Closing the Green GapBased on the results of thisresearch review, it appears that in order to close the green gap, two types ofadjustment must occur: structural and behavioral. The availability ofsustainable products showed up as a key factor in consumer purchasing decisionsin this review, but the viability of increasing availability is beyond the meansof this paper.
Therefore, this review considers what can be done by those whoprovide sustainable products as of now. In particular, the role of greenmarketing could be influential in terms of structural alleviators. Greenlabeling could be especially beneficial because it could provide a shortcut forconsumers to determine if a product has more sustainable components than itscounterparts (Peattie 2010; Hwang et al 2010). This would only be effective ifthe systems behind the green label are legitimate of course, and not merely aform of greenwashing. Green marketing in general could certainly alleviate thefeeling that green consumption is sacrificial in terms of time and effort, aswell as aiding consumers in combining their various types of knowledge intoaction.
Marketing should perhaps be done on a small scale though as context isvery important, particularly because consumption changes per culture (Peattie2010). For instance, Kaman Lee (2010) proposed that young shoppers in Hong Kongcould be encouraged to sustainably consume by green marketing efforts focusingon encouraging group shopping. This was because peer influence was thestrongest indicator of consumption. This was a finding focused specifically onyoung people in Hong Kong however, so it can’t be said whether or not it wouldbe effective in general.Alongside green marketing, providingsocial incentives could encourage behavioral change among consumers followingstructural changes by producers. This is already partially a component of greenproducts.
Consumers tend to have a higher regard for themselves when theypurchase green products. Xiao and Li ( 2011) found that consumers who purchasedgreen products reported stronger feelings of life satisfaction. Similarly, Boivinand colleagues (2012) found that certain risks were associated more withunsustainable products than sustainable products.
One of these risks werecategorized as “psychosocial”. When consumers purchased green products, theyfelt as though they were fulfilling a responsibility and trend, and this inturn made them feel as though they appeared to be a better person. Thereappears to already be opportunities to incorporate social incentives intosustainable consumption then. If this could be expanded on, then social incentivesmay be able to be used in encouraging the combination of environmentalknowledge and action. Social components are perhaps a more theoreticalsuggestion, but Briceno & Stagl (2006) noted the importance ofincorporating social aspects into product-service systems for Local ExchangeTrading Systems, and suggested that programs with a social focus were morelikely to be successful.Conclusion This studyused as research review in order to discover commonalities in reasons regardingthe “green gap”. The results found that several types of knowledge were morelikely to lead to action than only one, that green consumption was oftenstigmatized as being sacrificial, and that green consumption faces structuralblocks that are not capable of being addressed by consumer’s, but ratherproducer’s.
This review recommends using green marketing in specific culturalcontext, as well as providing social incentives, to aid in closing the greengap. This review was limited by a small number of studies. In addition, althoughthis review sought to find cross-cultural implications across markets, it isaccepted by the researcher that considering studies across cultures and marketsmay lead to a lack of awareness regarding those specific cultures and markets.This study also did not look at the effect of “greenwashing”, or products thatare presented as sustainable but are actually not.
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