Table of Contents
List of figures
List of abbreviations
2 Conceptual foundation
2.1 Defining sustainable consumption
2.2 The attitude-behavior gap
3 Theoretical foundation
3.1 Theory of Reasoned Action and Theory of Planned Behavior
3.2 Norm Activation Theory
3.3 Deficiencies of the TRA, the TPB and the NAM
4 Drivers and barriers of sustainable consumption
4.1 Individual-related factors
4.2 Environmental factors
4.3 Conceptual model and additional remarks
5 Implications and future research
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List of figures
Fig. 1: Antecedents of behavior as originally conceptualized in the TPB
Fig. 2: Antecedents of behavior according to the NAM
Fig. 3: The main factors that have an impact on sustainable consumption
Fig. 4: More detailed representation of the drivers and barriers of sustainable consumption as well as factors influencing the attitude-behavior gap
List of abbreviations
NAM Norm Activation Model
PBC Perceived Behavioral Control
PCE Perceived Consumer Effectiveness
TIB Theory of Interpersonal Behavior
TIB Theory of Planned Behavior
TRA Theory of Reasoned Action
With adolescents around the globe demonstrating for a sustainable future and businesses increasingly embracing the idea of sustainable economic activities,1 it is undeniable that sustainability has evolved from a niche topic into a mainstream one2. The consumption behavior of individuals plays a key role in enabling a sustainable future for the world.3 This is manifested in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with Goal Number 12 being “Responsible Consumption and Production”.4 In Germany, social justice as well as environment and climate protection rank in second and third place among the most important problems the country currently faces. However, only 19% of respondents think that enough is done for environmental and climate protection by German citizens.5 This indicates a discrepancy between people’s attitudes toward sustainable practices and the extent to which they actually act on them. This phenomenon is also frequently observed in the academic literature and is one of the few unambiguous insights concerning sustainable consumer behavior.6 Generally, this topic has received increasing and considerable coverage in academic publications across various fields of research.7 Nevertheless, there is a lack of understanding regarding the factors shaping sustainable consumer behavior, and researchers repeatedly comment on the need for clarity and further research.8
Therefore, this thesis aims to structure and discuss facilitators as well as obstacles of sustainable consumption identified in the literature to date and thereby give the reader an overview of the current state of scientific knowledge on this subject. This will be achieved through a systematic literature review. The thesis is structured as follows: Firstly, sustainable consumption, as well as the attitude-behavior gap, will be conceptualized, and reasons for the gap will be outlined. Subsequently, relevant theories for understanding consumer behavior in the context of sustainability will be discussed. This is followed by a synopsis of the drivers and barriers of sustainable consumption. Finally, implications for the effective promotion of sustainable consumerism will be derived, and future directions for research will be suggested.
2 Conceptual foundation
2.1 Defining sustainable consumption
The concept of sustainable consumption is traced to the action plan for sustainable development adopted in 1992 by the United Nations’ Rio Earth Summit (Agenda 21).9 Since no definition of the term was included therein, ‘sustainable consumption’ was first defined by the Oslo Symposium two years later. As this definition was not a scientific one, it was heavily criticized in the academic field.10 Hence, several attempts were made to provide a more accurate and comprehensive characterization of the term, leading to a lack of clarity within the academic literature due to a myriad of available definitions.11 A selection of these as well as related concepts can be found in the appendix (Appendix A). What becomes evident from these definitions is that conceptualizations of sustainable consumption should (a) capture the entire consumption cycle, (b) take into account ecological as well as social issues, (c) consider the well-being of the global population and (d) take a long-term perspective. With this in mind, the present thesis views sustainable consumption as the selection, acquisition, use and disposal of products and services that considers not only the consumer’s own needs and wants, but also those of the current and future population in both an ecological and social respect.12
It is thus a very broad and multidimensional concept, which contains a range of different behaviors with varying levels of consumer commitment. It comprises, for instance, low-commitment acts such as buying fair-trade products but also actions that require deeper commitment like the reduction of the consumption level in general.13 The practice of reduced consumption also represents the difference between the terms ‘sustainable consumption’ and ‘consumption of sustainable products’, as the latter merely refers to consuming products with positive social and/or environmental attributes14, omitting the act of not consuming at all.
Ethical consumption is often used as a synonym for sustainable consumption,15 although it denotes consumption activities that are influenced by the consumer’s ethical concerns.16 It, therefore, differs from the aforementioned conceptualization of sustainable consumption, which does not necessarily have to be morally motivated. The purchase of environmentally friendly alternatives for reasons of superior taste or look can be classified as sustainable without being considered ethical.17 Ethical consumption is commonly used to refer to problems with workers’ rights, animal welfare or fair trade, but it includes environmental issues as well.18
Further similar and overlapping concepts can be found in the literature. These include ‘green consumption’ (inconsistent definitions exist in the literature, either referring to ecological issues only19 or including social aspects too20 ), ‘pro-environmental consumption or behavior’ (concerned with effects on the natural and built world only21 ), as well as ‘responsible consumption’ (varying definitions throughout the literature with different widths of associated activities22 ). As this thesis views sustainable consumption as an encompassing and holistic construct, the just mentioned concepts all fall under this definition.
The cube model of sustainable consumption behavior by Geiger et al. (2017) is a framework that reflects the multifaceted nature of sustainable consumption. In addition to the already discussed aspects of (a) ecological as well as socio-economic impact and (b) different consumption phases, it highlights (c) the various areas of consumption in people’s lives (e.g. food, housing, mobility) and (d) the impact of chosen behaviors (from low to high).23 Although sustainable behavior comes down to its impact in the end, one cannot expect people to always be aware of the factual effect their consumption choices have. For the assessment of sustainability in consumption acts, the underlying pro-ecological or pro-social intention of the consumer therefore often counts. This is called an intent-orientated approach and it stands in contrast to the impact-orientated approach, which is concerned with the social and ecological consequences of the action at stake.24 Both methods should ideally be combined for the promotion of sustainable consumption, meaning that in particular motives for consumer behaviors that have the highest sustainability impact should be identified and encouraged.25
2.2 The attitude-behavior gap
As previously mentioned, an issue that often arises during the exploration of sustainable consumption is a phenomenon that stems from social psychology and is called “attitude-behavior gap”.26 Several synonyms and very similar concepts exist in the literature, such as ‘ethical purchasing gap’27, ‘ethical consumption paradox’28, ‘values-action gap’29, ‘words/deeds inconsistency’30 or even ‘30:3 syndrome’ (attributed to a study which found that 30% of people claim to be motivated to buy ethically featured products, but these only account for 3% of the market share31 ). The following section gives a more detailed outline in terms of definition and causes of this widely documented32 matter.
2.2.1 Defining the attitude-behavior gap
Ajzen (1991) defines the attitude toward a behavior as “the degree to which a person has a favorable or unfavorable evaluation or appraisal of the behavior in question” (p. 188). In the simplest terms, it represents how a person feels or thinks about a certain behavior, for instance about buying groceries in zero waste shops. It should be clarified that ‘attitude toward a behavior’ refers to a specific attitude, which are to be distinguished from general ones, such as one’s attitude toward waste avoidance at large.33 The conceptualization of attitudes usually contains both cognitive (rational considerations like cost and benefit) and affective (experienced feelings) elements.34 The related concept of values, by contrast, is more basic. Values often underlie attitudes, which are linked more closely to specific objects or situations.35 Beliefs are another concept related to attitudes. They refer to the information (the knowledge) a person has about an object, issue or person.36
An interesting and at this point noteworthy model is the one of dual attitudes by Wilson, Lindsey, and Schooler (2000). It proposes that people can hold two attitudes about the same object simultaneously, one implicit and the other explicit. While implicit attitudes are automatically activated and thus often not recognized, explicit ones are under conscious control as they require cognitive effort. The cognitive capacity to retrieve the explicit attitude determines whether or not the implicit attitude gets overridden.37 This differentiation will be relevant for a later discussion.
For now, it is important to note that attitudes can be changed or altered relatively easy by new information or by both internal and external circumstances,38 which already indicates that once-voiced attitudes are not always in accordance with future actions. This discrepancy is what the attitude-behavior gap is about. It refers to the inconsistency between a person’s attitude and their actual behavior, and it has been identified by several authors in the context of sustainable consumption.39
In this context, it is important to distinguish between attitudes and intentions, the latter of which is defined as “instructions that people give to themselves to behave in certain ways” (Triandis, 1980, p. 203). They are conceptualized as people’s motivations or decisions to perform a particular action. Representative responses have the form “I intend / plan to do behavior x” or “I will do behavior x”.40 Most models in the field of sustainable consumer behavior are based on the following core cognitive progression: Beliefs inform attitudes, these attitudes lead to intentions, and intentions, in turn, determine behavior. According to this framework, there may be a gap between attitude and intention as well as between intention and behavior that contribute to the overall discrepancy between what consumers express via attitudes and what they end up doing.41
2.2.2 Causes for the attitude-behavior gap
Four major grounds for the attitude-behavior gap can be determined from the literature. These are briefly specified hereinafter.
Deficiency of research methods
The first reason for the gap can be attributed to the applied study designs, which can result in several biases and other problems, such as inadequate data collection or errors made by informants in the prediction of their behavior. Apart from biases that are associated with decontextualization of the respondents and sample selection toward more sustainable consumers,42 the most prominent bias is the social desirability bias, where respondents feel social pressure to provide socially acceptable answers.43 Consequently, consumers tend to overstate their socially and ecologically responsible attitudes. This is especially true for self-reported survey instruments.44 These are predominantly used in studies on sustainable consumption, with only a few researchers observing actual behavior.45 It was found that when self-reported rather than actual behavior was assessed, lower attitude-behavior correlations were obtained.46 A solution to this issue was recently suggested: Implicit attitudes should serve as an additional measure since they are more robust to external stimuli and therefore also immune to the social desirability bias.47
Another problem that can lead to discrepancies in the attitude-behavior relation is the unequal scope of measurement of attitudes and actions, as demonstrated by the following exemplary questions: “Do you care about the environment?” and “Do you recycle?”, whereby the scope of the question referring to attitude is not as specific as the one about the behavior.48 Furthermore, as the measurement of attitudes and the execution of the discussed behavior are temporally separated, consumers tend to make mistakes in their predictions of future behavior (e.g. due to unavailability of the sustainable product at the time of actual purchase) or in their recollection of past behavior.49
Misleading monistic view of morality and personal goals
The second reasoning is not as well-explored in the literature as the social desirability bias, but it is, in a distant sense, also related to the just-mentioned insufficient capture of a person’s attitudes. The core issues here are the multiple fragmented and competing identities of consumers.50 Consumption choices are outcomes of balancing several potentially conflicting demands and desires. Thus, failure to engage in a sustainable consumption act does not necessarily mean that the consumer has incorrectly stated their attitude toward sustainable consumption. Instead, not all moral demands were considered, including the most decisive one that has overruled the attitude toward consuming sustainably. While a mother, for instance, may care for the environment, the duty of care for her child might outrank her environmentally conscious motivations.51 The problem of duty conflicts is also reflected in the conceptualization of consumer choices as personal projects by Valor and Carrero (2014). According to this view, the gap is attributable to conflicts between different personal projects a consumer has, roles he or she plays and the influence of significant others.52 This stresses the importance of holistically viewing all of a consumer’s moral attitudes and the interactions between them.53
1 Cf. Bové et al. (2017), p.1; British Broadcasting Corporation (2019), p.1.
2 Cf. Carrington, Neville, and Whitwell (2010), p.40; Mittelstaedt, Shultz, Kilbourne, and Peterson (2014), p.260.
3 Cf. Sanne (2002), p.273; Tanner and Wölfing Kast (2003), p.883.
4 Cf. United Nations (2019).
5 Cf. Rubik et al. (2019), p.16f..
6 Cf. Caruana, Carrington, and Chatzidakis (2016), p.215.
7 Cf. Liu, Qu, Lei, and Jia (2017), p.427.
8 see, for example Chatzidakis, Kastanakis, and Stathopoulou (2016), p.95; Abdulrazak and Quoquab (2018), p.16.
9 Cf. United Nations (1992), p.18.
10 Cf. Geiger, Fischer, and Schrader (2017), p.20.
11 Cf. Peattie (2010), p.197.
12 Cf. Vermeir and Verbeke (2006), p.170* (this is only the secondary source as the primary source is in Dutch); Di Giulio, Fischer, Schäfer, and Blättel-Mink (2014), p.54; Geiger et al. (2017), p.20.
13 Cf. Prothero et al. (2011), p.32; Dermody, Hanmer-Lloyd, Koenig-Lewis, and Zhao (2015), p.1473; Scott and Weaver (2018), p.291.
14 Cf. Luchs, Naylor, Irwin, and Raghunathan (2010), p.18.
15 Cf. L. Johnstone and Lindh (2018), p.127.
16 Cf. Cooper-Martin and Holbrook (1993), p.113; Kushwah, Dhir, and Sagar (2019), p.3.
17 Cf. Strubel (2017), p.11.
18 Cf. Shaw and Shiu (2002), p. 286.
19 Cf. Tanner and Wölfing Kast (2003), p. 885.
20 Cf. Moisander (2007), p.405.
21 Cf. Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002), p.240.
22 Cf. Valor and Carrero (2014), p.1110f.; Sudhanshu Gupta and Agrawal (2018), p.524.
23 Cf. Geiger et al. (2017), p.20ff..
24 Cf. Fischer, Michelsen, Birgit, and Di Giulio (2012), p.73f..
25 Cf. Geiger et al. (2017), p.19.
26 Cf. Lapiere (1934), p.230ff..
27 Cf. Nicholls and Lee (2006), p.369.
28 Cf. Carrington, Zwick, and Neville (2016), p.21.
29 Cf. Ertz, Karakas, and Sarigöllü (2016), p.3971.
30 Cf. Newholm and Shaw (2007), p.257.
31 Cf. Cowe and Williams (2000), p.5.
32 Cf. Carrington et al. (2010), p.141.
33 Cf. Ajzen and Fishbein (2005), p.173f..
34 Cf. Newhouse (1990), p.26; Ajzen (2011), p.1116.
35 Cf. Homer and Kahle (1988), p.638.
36 Cf. Petty and Cacioppo (1996), p.7.
37 Cf. Wilson et al. (2000), p.104ff..
38 Cf. Ajzen and Fishbein (2005), p.177; Schwarz (2007), p.642.
39 E.g. Cf. Roberts (1996b), p.80; Boulstridge and Carrigan (2000), p.355; Carrigan and Attalla (2001), p364; Chatzidakis, Hibbert, and Smith (2007), p.89.
40 Cf. Sheeran (2002), p.2.
41 Cf. Carrington et al. (2010), p.142.
42 Cf. Auger and Devinney (2007), p.363ff..
43 Cf. Carrington et al. (2010), p.143.
44 Cf. Chung and Monroe (2003), p.296ff..
45 Cf. I. Davies, Lee, and Ahonkhai (2012), p. 38; see exceptions like Buttlar, Latz, and Walther (2017), p.155.
46 Cf. Hines, Hungerford, and Tomera (1987), p.4.
47 Cf. Govind, Singh, Garg, and D'Silva (2019), p. 1198.
48 Cf. Newhouse (1990), p.28; Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002), p.242.
49 Cf. Carrington, Neville, and Whitwell (2010), p.141.
50 Cf. Szmigin, Carrigan, and McEachern (2009), p.229; Heath, O'Malley, Heath, and Story (2016), p.246.
51 Cf. Heath et al. (2016), p.246.
52 Cf. Valor and Carrero (2014), p.1119.
53 Cf. Heath et al. (2016), p.246.