Shopping still costs the earth
There is still no such thing as a truly green consumer despite the increase in the range of green and ‘ethical’ products available, according to new Leeds-led research into the choices and trade-offs made by shoppers.
The team found we are still tempted by bargains, with price most commonly traded off against a product’s environmental performance. Also, shoppers find it easy to apply ethical values to more everyday purchases like food or clothing but struggle to reconcile the competing issues of brand, energy efficiency and desire to shop locally for more major items such as dishwashers.
Earth and environment senior lecturer Dr William Young and colleagues from the Sheffield and Robert Gordon Universities carried out interviews, focus groups and a workshop to explore the decisions made by shoppers when buying everything from washing machines to light bulbs.
Three types of consumer were identified in the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded research. The majority of people interviewed were selectors and acted as ethical consumers in one aspect of their lives. As a selector they might be an avid fan of recycling or have a green electricity tariff but they see no contradiction in limiting these values to one area of their lifestyle.
Translators were green in several aspects of their lives but not in others. They want to do the ‘right thing’ and will make sacrifices if they can see a clear rationale for change.
The researchers found people in this group might move on to become ‘greener’. The most conscientious consumers were exceptors, whose personal philosophy about consumption, social justice, and sustainability is a priority in almost all areas of their lives.
Dr Young said: “Green consumers begin product purchasing decisions with a set of values that they convert into ideal green criteria for their purchase. They’ll do a lot of research before buying something.
“Earlier work has shown that only one in three consumers have this underlying set of ethical values so the Government will need more carrot and more stick to push the drive for energy efficiency and recycling to the wider population.”
He concedes even the ‘greenest’ of consumers have a ‘blind spot’, and the most common weakness was for small electronic products such as MP3 players or items associated with a hobby: “In one case we interviewed a quite radical green activist and his blind spot was his top-of-the-range motorbike. He went touring on it at weekends with a club.”