Being green: Not just for tree-huggers

In a post-COP21 world, saving the planet is no longer just the domain of activists. We look at how inspiring green behaviour might involve some not-so-green motivations.

environmental activists at a protest in warsaw
Environmental activists in Warsaw, 2013. There are a lot of ways to be green, and this is only one of them. Image: Luka Tomac

If you are a consumer who has been dutifully purchasing environmentally sound products for the good of the planet, you might be in the minority.  

If you are a consumer who has been dutifully purchasing environmentally sound products for your personal - and your loved ones’ - benefit, welcome to the rest of the green consumer base.  

As it turns out, the modern green consumer is a pretty average person. 

He may own a dog and two cats but isn’t a card-carrying member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) or Greenpeace. Maybe the car he drives is an old Toyota Corolla (and not a Prius).

He knows climate change is real, and yet sometimes forgets to bring his own bags to the grocery store. And while he is aware of the unsustainable nature of the meat industry, isn’t about to commit to becoming a vegetarian.

As UCLA environmental professor Magali Delmas explainsAltruistic consumers and people who really care about the environment for the environment are a very tiny minority. Most of us will purchase green products because we want to get something else out of it — something more important to us such as health, higher quality, convenience, functionality or status.” 

Understanding the different underlying motivations that result in green behaviour is crucial to finding out how this behaviour can be encouraged and sustained.

With organic and sustainable goods becoming increasingly mainstream (particularly in the US), the growing customer base has become commensurately diverse, and is made up of a lot more than just treehuggers.

Understanding the different underlying motivations that result in green behaviour is crucial to finding out how this behaviour can be encouraged and sustained.

With almost 200 countries agreeing to transition to a low carbon economy at the Paris COP21, there is no better time to expand our ideas and preconceptions about how to foster green behaviour.

This means letting go of the notion that you have to be solely dedicated to saving the planet to be interested in green products or to behave in a way that benefits the planet. 

In the organic food market for example, the consumer’s perception that sustainable and organic products are simply better for health is the main driver for its growing popularity. 

While the jury is still out on whether consuming these products actually improves your health and has some kind of medical benefit, the fact is these products have the apparent nutritional advantage of being non-toxic (or less toxic) and contain fewer or no chemical additives such as artificial hormones. 

The dramatic increase in China’s organic market is a case in point: The Post magazine reports that while the numbers are impressive (from less than US$100 million to US$3 billion in the last decade), the domestic industries have not yet felt the impact of this growth because Chinese consumers have largely been consuming imports. 

This is a market signal to Chinese producers that there is great potential in organic and sustainably-produced goods. 

As China-based business owner Jeni Saeyang says in the article, “most Chinese people don’t trust Chinese products at all, so they will go for an import… [And by buying these imports] your carbon footprint from shipping [it] across the world isn’t sustainable, but this is a thing that the Chinese consumer has no understanding of right now.”

Even with the country regularly making headlines for its pollution problems stemming from unsustainable manufacturing practices and contaminated food products, the consumer still finds it more compelling to buy organic products not because of the benefit it can provide their country as a whole (much less the planet), but because it is personally gratifying. It is “better” for you, and its higher prices provide a prestige factor. 

As Yang Zengdong, a mother from Hunan province notes in that magazine report, customers spend on these everyday products… to show off your quality of life. Some people dearly love to buy luxury products, but buying environmentally friendly products and organic food can send a similar message.” 

It is a trend that green companies will do well to pay heed to, as confirmed by British research company Technavio’s latest report that “the practice of purchasing or consuming luxury products to display an individual’s wealth is another factor that is expected to drive the demand for natural and organic food.” 

In other words, while it may seem contrary to sustainability principles to use capitalist principles to market these products, it is still an effective means of winning over consumers who care more about status than health.

The idea that those who care more about the planet are the only ones who conduct themselves in a more environmentally responsible way also does not bear out in other types of consumer behaviour 

For instance, when American power company Opower tried to inspire better energy conservation efforts in their customers by providing detailed reports on how and where to reduce consumption, there was virtually no improvement. 

They only began to achieve the results they had hoped for by pitting consumers against their neighbours and awarding them with smile emoticons when they consume less power than their competitors. Peer pressure appeared to be more effective than exhortation and guilt. 

This is the same motivation behind landlords in China who have been “retrofitting buildings to reduce energy costs and improve air quality in hopes of distinguishing themselves from the competition in a market struggling with too much supply and an economic slowdown.”

They might or might not be environmental activists, but their actions are still impacting the environment in a positive way. By making energy conservation a desirable and profitable enterprise, being green just becomes good business sense.

It is this same competitive streak in human nature that has enabled the “Neat Street” project in London to succeed: in an effort to rid city streets of cigarette butt litter, environmental charity Hubbub placed bins that had been separated into two sections and fitted with shatter-proof acrylic glass (also known as Plexiglas) to allow people to “vote” for the better football player with cigarette butts (the vote question changes weekly) 

It worked so well that the city of Boston plans to adopt this method to rid their streets of cigarette litter, except with more culturally relevant questions of course. 

These examples have shown that when it comes to green behaviour, it isn’t always our more noble instincts that can help us achieve our goal for a better, healthier planet. Environmentalism can be, and is, a pragmatic pursuit as much as an idealistic one.

In fact, recognising and accepting that we can harness these traits to our advantage - and letting go of the precept that only the good can do good - may be our eventual saving grace.

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