Environmental behaviour explained by motivations

If we consider that consumers can be, partially, a driving force for change to sustainable development objectives, we start with the implicit hypothesis that consumers have the will and the power to adapt their consumption choices and more generally their lifestyle. In Western societies, the quantity of products on the market is growing continuously, and so are the possibilities, incentives and pressure to consume. The market in which consumers must make their daily decisions is becoming more and more complex. The classic economical approach, based on a consumer who makes rational decisions in a stable, well-defined system of preferences, did not explain observed behaviours. It has progressively been abandoned for more dynamic and complex models driven by sociological (e.g. age, family situation, profession, lifestyle, socio-economic status), psychological (e.g. personality, motivation, perception, learning, attitudes) and situation-bound variables (e.g. the circumstances in which the buying decisions have to be made).

The socio-psychological approaches tend to explain consumer behaviour by motivation. By 'motivation' we understand all factors that generate a particular behaviour, and explain its direction, its intensity and its persistence (Moisander, 1999). In most of the studies that try to understand environmentally friendly behaviour, environmentally friendly choices are studied as an option adopted by people to contribute to a better quality environment. In this case the principal motivation of environmental behaviour is 'to protect the environment'. Moreover, research into ecological behaviour has often been conducted without carefully defining what exactly is meant by ecological behaviour. This is often presented as an undifferentiated class of behaviours (Poortinga et al, 2004). By doing this, the different types of environmental behaviours are considered implicitly dependent on the same elements. It is interesting to look at the classification of environmental behaviours as proposed by Stern (2000). He suggests distinguishing the so-called environmental behaviours by either their intention or their impact on the environment. Classifying them by their intention means that the behaviour is defined by the actor's motivation to protect the environment, without considering its real impact on the environment. Certain behaviours may be adopted with the intent of reducing environmental impact, without necessarily producing a minor impact on the environment. The classification based on the impact does not focus on the actors' motivations but defines a type of behaviour by its environmental impacts. Gatersleben et al. (2002) have shown that behaviour adopted with the intention of protecting the environment is determined more by attitude-related variables, while behaviours with an environmental impact, such as energy consumption, depend more on socio-demographic criteria like the size of the family and income, which influence individuals' capacity to adopt a specific behaviour.

Authors such as Thorgersen and Moisander have underlined the role of personal factors like perceptions, attitudes and emotions in motivations to adopt a behaviour that contributes to a better quality environment. They considered, for instance, the perception of a moral responsibility towards the protection of the environment, the perceived normative pressure, the perception of the identity of a responsible consumer with regard to the protection of the environment and perceived behavioural control. Among these motivations, Moisander (1999) distinguishes primary motivations (that engage in a general behavioural class such as 'to adopt ecological behaviour') and selective motivations (that generate a particular behaviour: e.g. recycling, energy saving). She observes that the moral responsibility that people feel with regard to the protection of the environment and the perception of their identity as an ecological consumer are more powerful motivations than the others for adopting an environmentally friendly behaviour.

When studying consumers' attitudes and behaviour towards environmentally friendly products (products with an ecological label), Thorgersen (2000) considers that everyone who chooses an ecolabelled product has to pass through a sequence of mental stages: determining a personal objective with regard to environmental protection, believing that making responsible purchases is an efficient strategy to achieve this objective, being familiar with ecolabels (that they exist, what they look like, what they mean), having faith in the label; then, in the shop, paying attention to the labels and deciding to buy products with an ecolabel. The attention paid to ecolabels is influenced by the availability of ecolabelled products in shops and by certain elements that have to do with personality, i.e. the consumer's perception of their capacity to influence the achievement of the objective (in this case a better quality environment). The consumer's faith in the power of their consumption choices as an environmental strategy is influenced, among other things, by their attitudes and certain features of their personality.

The complexity in making a more ecological choice increases with the potential conflict that may occur between the different motivations which play a role in a specific consumer choice. Indeed, the 'ecologically responsible' consumer aims at two different goals in his or her consumption choices: on the one hand individual goals, and on the other hand collective goals and the protection of the environment in the long run. His or her choices imply two types of evaluation, and in the end prove more complex than the choices based on just one type of goal. The choices are all the more complex because conflicts between motivations may be associated with a 'social dilemma' (Moisander, 1999): the social advantage for the individual consumer who does not adopt the behaviour may be larger than the advantage he or she gains by adopting cooperative behaviour, independently of what the other society members do. However, all the individuals in the society profit less when everyone drops out instead of joining in. Even a 'green' consumer may be tempted to act as a 'free rider' because an ecological product costs more or takes more time, or because he or she thinks that his or her individual impact is only marginal.

We wanted to better understand how this conflict of motivations intervenes in consumption choices. We chose an approach 'impact', studying behaviours that have less impact on the environment and not the behaviours adopted in order to better protect the environment. We analysed the motivations of a variety of different individuals when they adopt this kind of behaviour. The results presented below come from a research project called 'Criteria and impulsions for change toward a sustainable development: sectoral approach'.1 Among other things, this project aimed at a better understanding of the logic of attitudes and behaviour developed by consumers with regard to consumption choices that are compatible with sustainable development. In particular, we would like to verify the existence of variations in that logic for different sectors of consumption and to determine the sectors for which more possibilities of change exist.

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