Global consumption continues to grow in both material and economic terms. The rising use of materials and resources must be reversed, if we are to reduce the environmental impact of modern consumerism. It involves changing the mindset of consumers and integrating concerns for the environment into our everyday decision-making.

Each day we make an immense amount of decisions from what clothes to wear or which brand of milk to purchase. How much time and effort we put into these decisions vary significantly depending on the perceived importance of the decision. No matter the level of importance, most decisions have one thing in common – they are somehow related to the environment.

Environmental organizations have for decades run informational and educational campaigns to inform consumers about the environmental effects of various products. Yet many consumers continue to opt for the cheapest and less sustainable option. Why is that? Obviously there is not a simple answer to this question. One explanation is that many of the most problematic features of consumer products are invisible and unrecorded at the time of purchase.

Another explanation is that consumers’ positive attitudes toward protecting the environment are not activated at the time of purchase and therefore not considered during product selection.


Consumers’ existing habits can also act as a barrier that makes them repeat unsustainable consumer choices of the past. Habits are generally difficult to change both due to a lack of motivation and because they are often reinforced by the environment. Therefore, well-functioning habits often reduce people’s motivation sildenafil belgique to seek out new information or to deliberate about sustainable alternatives.

Understanding how consumers make decisions is crucial in order to change their behavior in a more sustainable direction. In psychology, it is widely assumed that the brain has two cognitive systems, which affect the decision-making process: an “automatic” and a “reflective” system.

When the automatic system is used, decisions are taken effortless and unconsciously with limited mental effort. In contrast, the reflective system is controlled and effortful, where decisions are deliberative and well thought out. The automatic system is far more used than the reflective, which is evident in the ease with which we engage in normal social discourse and select most products.

Naturally some of our decisions require mental effort – like purchasing a car or installing solar panels on the roof. These decisions require consideration and reflection about different product alternatives and their features before an appropriate course of action is selected. Whether decisions are made more automatically or involve deliberate considerations depend on the consumer’s motivation and involvement in the decision.


Due to the number of consumer choices, most decisions involve little motivation and consideration (e.g. purchasing an apple) and are instead made out of habit or by using heuristic principles (rules of thumb). A heuristic principle is a strategy that ignores part of the information in order to make decisions more quickly, which saves the consumer time and effort. This implies that consumers often make decisions that are not optimal, but rather satisfactory.

Examples of heuristic strategies include choosing the product with the lowest price, a familiar and trusted brand, or repeating a previous satisfactory choice.

Therefore, unlike what some environmental campaigners would like to think, consumers are often not assessing all attainable information, deliberating on which product alternative is more attractive, or acting rationally and in accordance with their attitudes and beliefs.

What does all this mean? It means that unless the decision has a fair degree of importance and personal relevance, the consumer is not going to be motivated to spend much time and effort on it. This can be both a good and bad thing. A good thing because a heuristic strategy can involve selecting products based on their environmental features (e.g. an eco-label) and habitual behavior can too be sustainable. Furthermore, a person’s environmental attitudes can also influence purchasing behavior.

However, this requires that the attitude be activated in the moment of decision-making, which depends on the attitude strength and/or a cue in the immediate environment. A cue could be an eco-label or a sign signaling the consumer that the product choice is somehow related to the environment.

The more or less automatic decisions can also work against the sustainable behavior change process. In cases where no environmental cue is present, consumers rarely opt for sustainable products, because their environmental attitudes are not strong enough to be activated on its own. Instead other product characteristics will influence the decision such as package design, shelf position, price, or brand name.


Taking these factors into consideration, there are mainly two strategies environmental campaigners should employ, when seeking to change consumer behavior.

The first involves strengthening pro-environmental values and attitudes of consumers. This is often done through informational and educational campaigns, where consumers’ knowledge about environmental aspects is improved – a strategy used by most environmental campaigners. In this respect, it is important to emphasize knowledge about actions (e.g. which behaviors cause environmental problems and alternate behaviors) rather than knowledge about facts. The former is more likely to influence behavior.

The second strategy is much more overlooked by campaigners. It involves making sure that environmental considerations are on the consumers’ mind, when a decision is taken. This is a critical supplement to the first strategy. As mentioned, positive environmental attitudes can only exert their influence on behavior, if they are activated in the situation. For most people the activation occurs due to some situational cue, which informs the consumer that their environmental attitudes are relevant for this particular decision.

One tactic to increase the likelihood of attitude activation is priming sustainability in the store – for example signs presenting low-impact behaviors or explaining the different eco-labels. This tactic is very important in order to increase the sustainability of consumer purchases among average people. Yet it is widely neglected by campaigners.

Other useful tactics to promote more environmentally friendly consumer behavior include nudging or changing the choice architecture in the store. (e.g. the availability of sustainable products and how easy they are to identify and distinguish from conventional products).

In conclusion, environmental campaigners ought to increasingly direct their attention toward creating shopping environments that facilitate and promote sustainable consumer products as an accompanying effort of current practices.

New initiatives could help reduce the discrepancy between environmental attitudes and actual behavior and further the transition to a sustainable society. To ensure their widespread adoption and effectiveness, they should mostly be undertaken in close collaboration with companies, policy makers and behavioral experts, as progressive policy changes and sustainable product innovations are necessary supplements.