Green hypocrites? Behaviour change in a consumerist society

It’s not easy being green (though it is easy to talk about it). Anthony Agius

Many Australians are happy to declare their interest in sustainability, to reducing their environmental impact. But how many of them are prepared to reduce the amount they actually consume?

We recently explored whether Australian households have an “attitude-action gap” on environment and consumption. We surveyed 1200 Melbourne households, examining attitudes, intentions and opinions related to the environment and urban living. We also recorded objective data on actual household consumption of energy, water, housing space, urban travel and domestic appliances.

It’s not uncommon being a material green

Three lifestyle segments emerged: a majority (40.3%) of those who responded to this survey were defined as “material greens”, 33.5% “committed greens” and 26.3% “enviro-sceptics”.

_Committed greens _were strongly pro-environment in beliefs and behavioural preferences, and prepared to sacrifice economically for an environmental benefit. This was the only group prepared to pay more tax if it would benefit the environment (50%), as well as higher utility charges (56%). A high percentage agreed the environment should be the highest priority, even if it hurts the economy (80%).

This group strongly disagreed (76%) that the expense is not worth the benefits, wanting the environment to take higher priority over the economy. They consistently purchased green-labelled products, declined plastic bags and volunteered time for green projects. They strongly disagreed with statements such as “The environmental crisis is exaggerated”, “I have more important things to do”, “There is no regulation requiring me to”, “Reducing my household’s energy and water consumption is not worth the trouble” and “It’s not my responsibility”.

_Material greens _moderately agreed the environment should be a higher priority than the economy and that the balance of nature is delicate and easily upset. But 56% agreed that the expense is probably not worth the benefits and — as a bottom line position — they were not willing to pay! This group was vehemently opposed to paying more taxes or higher utility charges (96% and 90%, respectively) from their household budget.

The group was pro-purchase of green-labelled products and avoided use of plastic bags, but was unlikely to donate hours to voluntary environmental work. They saw the environment as important, but not worth paying for in dollars or time, especially by themselves as individuals.

_Enviro-sceptics _weren’t prepared to make higher personal payments for the environment, and agreed the expense would not be worth the benefits. They weren’t interested in “green choices”: only a low proportion bought green-labelled products, gave up plastic bags and donated time for voluntary environmental projects. A relatively high percentage believed the environmental crisis is exaggerated (44%), they have more important things to focus on (55%), there is no regulation requiring them to (54%) and it’s not their responsibility (45%).

Who are these people?

There were significant socio-demographic differences for these three clusters, in terms of age, gender, level of education, household income, family structure and suburb location.

The committed greens cluster contained more university graduates and households with higher incomes. They know what behaviours are likely to be required in a climate- and resource-constrained future and can pay to make the transition.

The material greens households had the lowest proportion of university graduates, were the youngest and also tended to be on lower household incomes.

The enviro-sceptics contained more men and those aged 45 and over than either of the other clusters.

Although the enviro-sceptics and material greens clusters tended to have similar incomes, the latter cluster is more likely to consist of households with children, which could have had some influence on their pro-environment attitude.

The committed greens lived predominantly in the inner city suburbs (where, in recent years, the Greens Party has become politically dominant), while the material greens tended to live in greenfields and outer suburban areas. Enviro-sceptics are dispersed across the city.

They talk the talk, but…

When we examined actual levels of household consumption of energy and water (from most recent bills), housing space, urban travel and appliances, there were no significant differences between the three lifestyle groups in relation to their combined level of urban resource consumption.

The gap between intentions and action like that revealed here is a significant challenge for behaviour change research. People want to be sustainable consumers, but there are clearly significant barriers getting in their way. What stops people reducing their consumption? Lack of time makes it difficult to make the necessary changes; and there are financial challenges, including determining whether the benefits reward the financial outlay. At a pragmatic level, there remains a lack of information on what can be done and how best to get it done – a challenge for social marketers and an opportunity for new business services in a green economy.

A deeper challenge is that social norms relating to sustainable consumption are yet to materialise in high income societies, such as Australia; they would constitute an important influence on the voluntary behaviour of individuals and households. An ethos of household water conservation that emerged during the recent drought (encouraged by a combination of media and restrictions) quickly evaporated when state governments removed restrictions. In the space of two years, average daily per capita consumption has increased by 66% to 250 litres in Melbourne. Old habits returned.

It’s an open question whether imminent system failure will be required to trigger a “tipping point” in societal values associated with environment and consumption. This is a major reason why supply-side urban technology initiatives need to proceed apace, why governments need to remain actively involved in regulation, pricing and incentive programs, and why research that spans the cognitive-social spectrum of consumption must continue to search for triggers for effective behaviour change.

The newly formed Co-Operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living has established a research program dedicated to community engagement and behaviour change (as well as technology and urban design) and would welcome having its attention drawn to studies which document examples of significant reductions in carbon emissions by either households or community groups.