The big question: How can we change consumer behaviour to become more sustainable?

1st April 2018

Web shopping shutterstock 525001696




Lucy Siegle

Reporter on The One Show and writer on environmental issues

‘A mindful strategy is key… to break cycles’

Last year, the global fashion industry smashed through the 100-billion-garments-a-year barrier. We’ve never churned out that many garments before, most from virgin resources. And some of the brands preaching loudest on sustainability are driving this rapacious engine of production, consumption and generator of waste. The current system is certainly set up in their favour.

Neurological research on fashion shoppers found that buying at speed, at volume and low price (ie fast fashion) is quasi addictive. So why on earth would any consumer be persuaded to shop differently? But, to my delight, many are. There is a small but significant rise in mindful fashion consumption.

For a long time, it has been supposed that only brands could drive this change. Now advice is increasingly peer driven. Some years ago I included in my book on ethical fashion, To Die For, a 30-wears rule. If I couldn’t look at a piece of clothing on a rail and commit there and then to wearing it 30 times I left it. Now hashtagged #30wears, it has a digital life of its own and I see it passing between millennials and generation Z-ers. It’s been refashioned as a life hack for mindful living.

A mindful strategy is key. Given the addictive qualities of consuming and the pressures to consume so frequently, a slower, purposeful strategy allows shoppers to break cycles. It gives them freedom and control.

Tara Button

Tara Button

CEO, BuyMeOnce

‘The easiest thing we can do is to buy for the long term’

It’s so easy to impulse-buy a cheaply made umbrella or pair of jeans, but when they collapse in the wind, or rip in the crotch within a few months, we end up paying for the same shoddy stuff again and again. The shops are happy, but this is terrible for the planet and can even trap people into cycles of poverty if their big appliances break every few months.

The easiest thing we can do for our planet is to buy for the long term. Simply getting a t-shirt to last two years instead of one saves 24% of your carbon emissions. Think of the impact if we bought everything to last!

Buying for the long term means buying quality, so it’s more expensive upfront, which puts consumers off. However, if consumers had the hard facts on how much money they can save over time, this might change behaviour. We buy, on average, 1.1 umbrellas a year, and could save around £700 if we bought one for a lifetime. Sadly, much of the information on product lifespan is missing. I’m campaigning to get labels put on all appliances saying how long they last under normal usage.

The other side is psychological. So many messages are designed to make us feel dissatisfied with what we have. We’re constantly told we need to refresh. I believe in empowering people to discover their true tastes, what really suits them and their purpose, so they are less swayed by these fads. Only then will they be free to buy better.

Sarah Wakefield

Sarah Wakefield

Food sustainability manager, The Co-op

‘By thinking as citizens rather than consumers’

We know that most customers don’t want food that has a negative impact on the planet or people – but often they will look to others to make the change. This is sometimes called the value-action gap.

Retailers continually work to make products more sustainable, in a way that isn’t always obvious to shoppers – such as through certifying raw materials or nudges on labelling. But individual behaviour still has a huge role to play.

An example of this would be food waste. With a third of all food being wasted, and food farm to fork representing 25%-33% of all greenhouse gas emissions, we won’t be able to tackle climate change without reducing waste.

We have heard a lot about what retailers need to do to cut waste, and plans are going ahead on this. But 70% of the food wasted in the UK is in the home. So the biggest impact we can have is to change the social norms in our own homes and in wider society; thinking as citizens rather than consumers.

Once the desire to change is present – most topically at the moment around plastic recycling – we need to also recognise the effect of infrastructure and policy. It is one thing to create a social norm around recycling, sustainable choices and healthy lifestyles and another to make it easy to achieve.

We need everyone pointing in the same direction and recognising the moves we all need to make rather than pointing a finger at others to make changes.


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