People who care about poverty in developing countries won’t necessarily pay price premiums for environmental products, and vice versa.
People who care about poverty in developing countries won’t necessarily pay price premiums for environmental products, and vice versa. This, according to research from a French management journal.
Anne-Sophie Binninger (IAE de Lille) and Isabelle Robert (Reims Management School) examined relationships between peoples’ values and their behaviour with respect to sustainable development. The first phase of their study was qualitative and based on 124 individual interviews of families. The second phase was quantitative, based on an analysis of 270 questionnaires.
Sustainability Is a Little-Known Concept
When asked to describe sustainable development, only six per cent of respondents spoke about the three dimensions: people, profit and planet. Sixteen per cent were unaware of the concept of sustainable development entirely and the remainder may have heard of the term but were unable to define it.
The Environment Trumps Social Issues
Interview subjects focused far more on the environmental aspect of sustainable development than social. They associated the social aspect of sustainable development with issues in developing countries such as poverty, education and access to clean water.
How People Understand Sustainability
The second study demonstrated that an individual’s awareness of social and environmental issues influences his or her behaviour. The researchers found people understand sustainable development in terms of specific categories. They may focus on discrete issues such as poverty, pollution and companies rather than on the holistic idea of sustainability.
How People Act on Their Understanding
The researchers identified two ways of classifying how people behave when it comes to sustainability: merchant behaviours and non-merchant behaviours.
Merchant behaviours include “vigilant consumption” such as boycotting an irresponsible company or paying more for responsible products. Non-merchant behaviours include social and ecological actions such as joining volunteer organizations or turning off lights and recycling. These non-merchant actions are not monetary in nature.
Three Categories of Behaviours
Based on the above two findings about how people understand and act on sustainability issues, the researchers determined there are three groups of behaviours people engage in:
Non-merchant social behaviours where, for example, people join associations that tackle poverty.
Non-merchant environmental behaviours represented by minor everyday actions, such as recycling and saving energy.
Merchant behaviours corresponding to an awareness that is both social and environmental. This is especially true with fair trade.
Know Your Audience
This all suggests that a person who understands sustainable development in terms of social issues and who values products made without child labour may, for example, be unmoved by corporate messaging about reduced environmental impacts. And vice versa.
Managers hoping to leverage their sustainability activities should first determine their customers’ understanding of sustainable development. Better market segmentation will produce more targeted and more effective communication. These findings are similar to those in NBS’s 2009 study on Socially Conscious Consumerism, which showed there is no one profile for the “responsible consumer.”
Future research on this topic could explore consumer behaviour in response to different products, brands or companies.