Will consumers decide that buying less is better than buying ‘green’?

Discussion
Photo: @jsdaniel via Twenty20
Nov 06, 2019
Tom Ryan

A new university study finds that people who consume less are happier than those who engage in other pro-environmental consumer behaviors, like buying environmentally friendly products. 

In the study, published in the journal, Young Consumers, University of Arizona researcher Sabrina Helm and her collaborators explored how culturally entrenched materialistic values influence pro-environmental behaviors in Millennials.

The study focused on two main categories of pro-environmental behavior:

  • Reduced consumption, which includes actions like repairing instead of replacing older items, avoiding impulse purchases and not buying unnecessary items;
  • “Green buying” or purchasing products designed to limit environmental impacts, such as goods made from recycled materials.

Researchers essentially found two outcomes, depending on the degree to which individuals are materialistic.

More materialistic participants in the study were found to be unlikely to engage in reduced consumption. However, materialism did not seem to have an effect on their likelihood of practicing “green buying.” Researchers concluded that’s probably because “green buying,” unlike reduced consumption, still offers a way for materialists to fulfill their desire to accumulate new items.

One downside is that, while these “green materialists” were open to purchasing eco-friendly products, reduced consumption “is more novel and probably more important from a sustainability perspective.” 

On the other hand, study participants who reported having lesser materialistic tendencies were much more likely to engage in reduced consumption. Consuming less was, in turn, linked to higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress. The study found no similar psychological benefit from green consumption.

Researchers concluded the buying less “make us more satisfied and happier” because it alters an individual’s lifestyle. 

“It’s not like you buy it and you’re done with it,” Ms. Helm said in a statement. “There’s a lot of burdens of ownership, and if you relieve yourself of that burden of ownership, most people report feeling a lot better and freer.”

The study comes as the rental market, pioneered by Rent the Runway, has become a major trend in fashion. Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, Banana Republic, Bloomingdale’s and Express have all rolled out rental options. Patagonia and REI are among the few retailers calling for responsible consumption. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is responsible consumption more of an opportunity or threat to retail? Do you see mainstream retailers receiving any benefit from discouraging consumption?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"There is always an opportunity in any new trend. If responsible consumption is making an impact, then retailers should support it with appropriate messaging to that audience."
"Just like most everything else in the world of “awareness” marketing, “the devil is in the details” truly applies to “green buying.”"
"Seeing “reduced consumption” and “green buying” as ideas that are at odds with one another is part of the problem."

Join the Discussion!

10 Comments on "Will consumers decide that buying less is better than buying ‘green’?"


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Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There is always an opportunity in any new trend. If responsible consumption is making an impact, then retailers should support it with appropriate messaging to that audience. Don’t overthink this stuff.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
“Responsible consumption” — defined in this case as buying less in order to rid oneself of the apparently onerous, “burdens of ownership” — is obviously more of a threat to retailers since, by definition, it means people are not spending as often in stores or online. The only way the math of responsible consumption works in some retailers’ favor is if, for example, a person who would normally buy four $50 items a month only bought one item a month but that item cost over $200. In other words, in an inversion of the old retail principle of sell low and make it up on volume, retailers would have to build models around sell less volume, but make it up through higher margins … much higher margins. So, at least as presented, there is no upside for most retailers, especially those already operating on anemic margins. Now, in the case of this study — sponsored by … ah … oh yes … Rent the Runway … the implication is that the business lost in sales… Read more »
Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

The movement to become less materialistic is still maturing with the consumer. The trend does cut across generations, but I feel it is too early to tell whether this trend will gain enough momentum to be a widely adopted lifestyle. For the retailer, the opportunity is to carry down-sized packages and products that are more durable (longer lasting). The consumer may be willing to pay more for more durable goods. The materialistic folks looking for green products are already part of a lifestyle movement and are willing to spend more to feel good about their purchases. Retailers are already doing a great job offering products that cater to this lifestyle. The caution for retailers is as green buying becomes mainstream, competition increases, retail prices go down and margins will get squeezed. Retailers will need to actively search for new and improved green products to differentiate themselves with the consumer.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

Seeing “reduced consumption” and “green buying” as ideas that are at odds with one another is part of the problem. It’s also a huge leap to say that reduced consumption is more beneficial to the environment and society as a whole than sustainable consumption—which is already revolutionizing the retail industry as we know it.

It feels like this study is more of a pat on the back for consumers who choose to participate less in the economy as a whole, whereas I (and we, as an industry) need to be more focused on how to convert consumers who are still buying and/or are buying less at higher price points. This is where the cost-per-wear economic model comes back into play.

gordon arnold
Guest
People purchase what they want and/or perceive as needed at an affordable price point when it is convenient to them. The consumption of any given product or service is more closely tied to price and availability than almost anything other than the individual’s sustenance. It is a common belief that we live in an overwhelmingly materialistic society. Based on that it is most probable that manufacturers have dominance over the selection processes even with the constant threat of unbridled and often unpredictable government interference. Going green and/or reducing throwaway investments has and remains costlier than the mainstream bigger, better faster sales pitch for investing in something new. To see just how materialistic we as a society truly are, look at the Information Technology market. No other industry has more to contribute to landfills than this one. Refusing to make changes is the predominant cause of death in this industry. Outside of the emerging Third World there is little opportunity for aftermarket sales and as the third world evolves aftermarket sales suffer significant losses. Manufacturing is… Read more »
Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust
“Limited environmental impacts” is a subjective statement. Just as “organic” is subjective to thousands and thousands of individual product variables in the food supply chain. Environmentally speaking there seems to be a big “trade-off” hack going on masquerading as being “green.” A few examples. Does the trade-off of renting clothes, for instance, involving packing, shipping, delivery, dry cleaning the same garment dozens of times being delivered over time to dozens of people, multiplied by thousands of products, reduce the environmental effect of buying the garment? Or how about buying “green” products on Amazon? Because digital shopping is devoid of sensory cues experienced in the physical world, it is a common practice for people to buy two or three of the same item knowing they will return two of the items. What is the cost of reverse logistics to the environment? Lastly, we see news of major companies secretly burning millions and millions of returned products, as the only economical method to dispose of millions of products. Just like most everything else in the world of… Read more »
Suzanne Crettol
Guest

Responsible consumption lends itself to fewer purchases and of those purchases are higher expectations of quality. You can’t reuse something over and over again that falls apart after a few uses. For those who are truly buying “green,” responsible consumption is part of that buying process. Less waste is more responsible.

I think there are different levels of responsible consumption based on the demographics and mindsets of shoppers. I like to buy “green,” but even I will buy individual wipes occasionally due to convenience. It’s not a black and white situation … there are several layers of grey.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Seems like only yesterday we were discussing this … oh, wait, it WAS yesterday.

Whether “responsible consumption” is more a threat or an opportunity depends, ultimately, on how many traditional comforts consumers are willing to give up. Taken to extremes, what some pessimists would say is the logical conclusion, you can bet your granola it’s a threat: many of those people who hitched a ride into the wilderness in the ’60s were satisfied and never returned, but many did. I suspect in the long run this trend will result in a lot of virtue signaling and superficial changes that make people feel good, but have little real impact on either retailers, consumers or the environment … sort of like cigarette filters in the ’50s

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Reduced consumption and “green buying” both sound like a drift away from disposable and towards quality, longevity, durability … value over the long term. Not many apparel businesses are built around that ethos. Nothing wrong with being pragmatic, but let’s hope we can figure out how we don’t lose the fun and excitement and differentiation of fashion.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Let’s get real. It’s not possible to measure “happiness” in research — at best we can measure some indicators and claim those indicate happy. So I’m skeptical of the research to begin with.

Also, it’s likely that some other factor (than shopping) influencing their happiness and reduced purchasing might be a by-product.

All that said, there continue to be hundreds of consumer trends that ebb and flow and that’s a good thing. However we should never get carried away thinking there’s a “new breed of consumers.”

Here’s what I wrote years ago about “The Myth of the New Consumer“… noting it’s similarity to the myth of the New Soviet Man from cold war days.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"There is always an opportunity in any new trend. If responsible consumption is making an impact, then retailers should support it with appropriate messaging to that audience."
"Just like most everything else in the world of “awareness” marketing, “the devil is in the details” truly applies to “green buying.”"
"Seeing “reduced consumption” and “green buying” as ideas that are at odds with one another is part of the problem."

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