Can you ever really be wholly virtuous with your shopping choices? New research from AUT looks at how we balance our good and evil sides when we consume. Are you green to be seen, or do you really care about the environment? Emily Writes talks to AUT’s Sommer Kapitan about consumers’ conflicting motivations.
She was heading away for the weekend when Dr Sommer Kapitan was struck by the hundreds of Aucklanders driving to Matakana in gas-guzzling SUVs with their reusable bags to shop locally and ethically at rural farmers markets. Dr Kapitan, AUT senior lecturer in marketing, is in the business of why, and that’s what she wondered: how do these people reconcile driving a car as big as a tank with being environmentally conscious enough not to use single-use plastic bags?
With Christmas looming, there’s no better time to analyse why we are more likely to buy more crap just because there are fairy lights in a shop. These questions fascinate Dr Kapitan, and they’re the reason she joined forces with Spencer M. Ross, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts, to co-author the report Balancing Self/Collective-Interest: Equity Theory for Prosocial Consumption.
The paper asks how we balance our consumer choices and it speaks to the heart of how we see ourselves. “How can some consumers balance using fuel with non-electric vehicles on one hand, with shopping local and reusing market bags on the other?” Dr Kapitan asks. For decades, behavioural economics and consumer psychology has examined the gap between people’s attitudes towards being ethical and sustainable… and their actual behaviour. This research sheds light on why we do what we do when it comes to shopping.
Many of us are familiar with the “Green to be seen” approach. Are we really just selfish dickheads who want people to think we care about the environment or workers’ rights when in reality we are just terrible? It’s actually not that simple, Dr Kapitan says.
Her research shows that we have an ongoing balance: we are benevolent and we are entitled. Few people are just one or the other. People tally up self-interest versus collective-interest when making choices about what they buy or what service they choose. This, in part, explains why some decision makers value socially conscious or environmentally friendly (known as “pro-social”) causes, yet might also behave in ways that contradict those attitudes. The research found that a motivating force behind pro-social consumption is how much consumers perceive they have given to, and gotten from the marketplace.
As a consumer, what can I do be better aware that the choices I make are not always in the best interests of the planet and other people?
The number one thing is to be aware. But that can be hard when you’re mentally taxed and life is busy and lots of stuff is going on. Probably the best thing to be aware of is that you are probably making decisions on the things that are most important to you. Mine is that I take the bus. It’s good for everyone else and it is good for the planet, so no matter what I take the bus.
As long as you know you are doing something good you can start to add more to that list of pro-social behaviours. You also need to shine a light in your own mind on your entitled behaviours.
Our research shows that everyone seems to have this balance – it’s naughty and nice. We all have benevolent behaviours where we are taking care of others as well as ourselves, and we also all have an entitled side and it is important that we are aware of what those entitlements are.
Pay attention to what you do that is “good” because it makes you feel good but be aware that the more you pay attention to that, the more entitled you might become. You might begin to start having more behaviours that are less benevolent and more entitled.
If you are driving the SUV to the farmers market you could think about taking the bus. Those small changes make that a habit. It those areas that we always do, that become habit, the we don’t even begin to question it.
So the habits help us to not weigh ourselves too heavily as benevolent or entitled, right?
Yes, it is mostly the new opportunities where we are not quite sure what to do where we might default to that entitled option. It is when you encounter new behaviours that you need to make a conscious effort, because you only have to make a conscious effort once for it to become a habit. So the first couple of times you encounter it you make that conscious effort: “I need to keep those reusable bags in the car, or rolled up in my bag, for the next time I grab milk and bread on the way home.” Things that can help encourage your behaviours, and once they become habit it usually helps.
I feel like the most evil person admitting this, but I don’t recycle, and one of the reasons I said I didn’t was that I’m just lazy. I tried but everything ended up in the one bin. I had all these excuses, then one of the things I thought reading the research was: “This is the other side, this is the entitled side.” It made me want to do something about it rather than accepting I’m a lazy person who is never going to get her shit together enough. It made me think “No! I care and I want to make this a habit and I want to not be entitled.”
We have the angel and the devil whispering on our shoulder. It’s about becoming conscious that we are doing things.
So the research suggests picking apart your motivations? Like, maybe I don’t recycle because I don’t care enough? Maybe I feel like I do enough other stuff and I don’t have to put effort in this other place. The research made me think I can, and need to, do something about it. I think that self-reflection is empowering – it’s not someone else telling you to do something, it’s you saying to yourself “why haven’t I prioritised this thing?”
Yes, but I also want to caution: Usually we have a way of getting into this balance, and we only do so much because as a consumer we can’t put the whole world on every consumer’s shoulders – we must all be vegan, we must all use non disposable nappies, we must all take the bus. But we can’t all do that. And you can’t expect every consumer to have the solution.
But being part of the solution with some of your behaviour is to me one of the takeaways from the research. That’s what I want people to know.
What you are doing is OK. You can do more if you choose, but there can’t be pressure on you. It has to come from within.
My workmate is full benevolent, she is vegan, she got me on to not using plastic bags, and she almost made me a vegetarian. She is amazing. I want to be like her, I want to be full benevolent. How come there isn’t an easy answer for me?
Here’s my first question. Does that lady have kids?
No. She doesn’t.
Right now we are giving our heart and soul to these little people and have no time to think of much else. Right now we’re making good people, that has to count on your benevolent side. That everyday they are challenging us and we are helping them understand what they need to do to make good choices to be be good people in the world. And that is a huge occupation too.
On the flipside we are adding to our carbon footprint by having little people. There’s always that balance. Again, it’s all about balance.
I have a very good girlfriend who is never having children because it is adding to the destruction of the planet. I respond that I am raising people who will solve that problem – while they destroy. But that’s the point, there is always a balance.
to our journalism!Find Out More
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I think the answer is that we all do what we can. My research shows that’s OK. Often we say “oh I’m so green.” In fact we are not always, and everybody is this way. There are people who might skew more toward the benevolent side, but there is someone on the other side who skews completely entitled. Those balances work. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and that’s probably OK.
Your friend is full benevolent because you’re not – and out there somewhere is someone who is evil and full entitled. It’s a balance.
The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university, we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.