Towards sustainable behaviour

Beth McManus reports from a symposium at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

Sustainability has reached zeitgeist status with teenage activist Greta Thunberg helping to propel climate change into both the common consciousness and into parliamentary debate. This year’s conference welcomed a symposium on the Societal Impact of Sustainable Behaviour led by students and academics from the University of the Arts, London. Here, sustainability is positioned as a key area for fashion today and one where psychologists can have significant impact. The symposium was introduced by Anke Schat who identified three key issues for consideration: the attitude/behaviour gap between environmentally conscious consumers; peoples attitudes towards sustainability; and incentives for engaging in pro-environmental behaviour.

Brands such as Stella McCartney and Patagonia are increasingly looking towards sustainable practices and reduced footprints, choosing an ethos driven by values and purpose. Consumers are increasingly choosing garments with high sustainability credentials with a 2017 Unilever study concluding that a third of consumers are choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

Yet the fashion industry is one of the top three polluters in the world, sitting behind only the food and oil industries. Multiple practices within the industry impact on the environment in ways that many are oblivious to, meaning that the garments we wear are polluting the environment even before they’re presented on a hanger for sale. Cotton often relies on pesticides and is extremely demanding of water in its production – over 2700 litres of water are required to produce enough cotton for just one t-shirt and all this before taking into consideration the cost of manufacturing and transporting the fabric, producing garments, transporting the garments to shops and distribution centres.

First up, Anna Belotti presented findings from her research into the gap between behaviour and attitude in sustainable behaviour, and whether ‘green’ purchase intention was linked to life satisfaction. Belotti’s literature review found evidence of causality between positive attitudes towards sustainability and consequent positive behaviour. The review also found that consumers are not informed enough about sustainability and companies are not transparent in their processes, choosing not to communicate clearly about how sustainability fits in to their operations. Belotti’s quantitative observational cross-sectional research used Likert scales and from a pool of 134 European participants found that positive attitudes towards sustainable fashion will predict correspondent behaviour. Consequently, Belotti’s research was able to conclude that engagement in sustainable fashion behaviour leads to higher life satisfaction overall.

Next, Catriona Tassell asked ‘does wearing sustainable clothing increase our subjective well-being and mood?’ Tassell’s experiment involved the physical experience of wearing clothing and exploring the concept of ‘enclothed cognition’, which explores the symbolic meaning of clothing to the wearer. The conditions revolved around wearing white t-shirts and participants were split into four groups: a control group who wore their own clothing; a secondary control group who wore plain white t-shirts; a third group who wore the same t-shirts but labelled ‘sustainable’; and a fourth who wore the same t-shirts labelled ‘unsustainable’. Tassell’s experiment concluded that there were a higher level of positive feelings experienced when wearing the ‘sustainable’ t-shirt and indeed higher negative feelings when wearing the ‘unsustainable’ t-shirt – the story and the language used when representing clothing appears more important to feelings of well-being and mood than the garment itself.

Jekaterina Rogaten looked at the effectiveness of behaviour change campaigns, using Grunwald and Kopfmuller’s 2012 definition of sustainability as consisting of three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. Rogaten explained that socially, we are currently in an era of early adopters who are young, experimental and often financially poor and suggested that marketing needs to target the older, more established middle classes who have more spending power. This research looked at the ways we sell sustainability and categorised a number of poster and video campaigns into informational, emotional and social influence campaigns. Participants were ranked based on existing sustainability behaviours into low, mid and high sustainability groups. All groups had the greatest response to emotional campaigns, with those with existing high sustainability behaviours finding videos more effective. Those who ranked low on sustainable behaviour on average rated all campaigns lower than the other two groups, suggesting that existing marketing paradigms are somewhat preaching to the converted. Rogaten concluded by suggesting that one campaign won’t get the general population where they need to be in terms of conscious behaviour, and there is a need to meet people where they are.

The final presentation came from Eden Clingman who looked at the attitude / behaviour gap in online shopping habits, investigating how people make online purchase decisions and whether ethics come into their decision making process. Clingman used eye tracking technology and a mock-up of an online supermarket to look at how people choose what to purchase when shopping online. We know that visual attention reflects an individual’s information acquisition as they view a website, but it also plays an active role in constructing their decisions. The experiment found that production materials were more important than production location for their garment purchase decision, however materials were not mentioned as much in the follow-up discussion. One limitation here may have been that the majority of the participants were fashion students who may perhaps have a higher interest in materials than the general population.

- Report and illustration by Beth Clare McManus, who is one of our VIP Programme winners for 2018.

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