Sustainable Shopping & Consuming - How Psychology Can Help

Sustainable Shopping & Consuming - How Psychology Can Help

When it comes to sustainability and shopping, psychology and behavioural science can provide powerful initiatives that are both effective and appreciated.

Psychology and behavioural science can provide powerful shopper and consumer focussed initiatives that require minimal effort on the part of the shopper, and can lead to dramatic improvements in sustainability. Why wouldn’t you embrace all that psychology and behavioural science can do in your drive for improved sustainability?

Human behaviour underlies almost all environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. Psychological research offers clues as to why people engage in unsustainable behaviours despite their concern about the broader consequences...

The psychology behind sustainable actions

One of the most important observations from psychological research is that many decisions are made by automatic, unconscious processes based on information that our conscious, rational brains are hardly aware of.

As a species we have two separate systems of reasoning, commonly known as System 1 and System 2. As a brief reminder:

  • System 1 is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach, including the innate mental activities that we are born with, such as recognising objects including some brands and orienting attention.
  • System 2 is the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates, usually activated when we do something that does not come naturally and requires some sort of conscious mental effort. For example, calculating the added value of a ‘3 for 2’ promotion or comparing the price difference between different purchase alternatives.

Sustainable behaviours have little appeal to System 1.

Consider a behaviour like cycling to work: System 2 thinks it’s a great idea because of all the benefits (health, money savings, fitness) but System 1 responds with a definitive “No way, far too much effort!"

One way to empower sustainability is to make sustainable actions appealing to System 1.

A second strategy is to get the attention of System 2 so that it can assert itself against System 1 rejection of a sustainable action. An even better strategy does both, by making a sustainable action both appealing and action generating for both System 1 and System 2.

What makes for good sustainability communication?

Shopping behaviour is a complex mix of internal, psychological factors and external cues. Unfortunately, although a strong inclination and motivation to behave sustainably is important, it is usually not enough by itself to empower sustainable behaviour in-store. A successful sustainability communication campaign also needs to consider the following:

  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Different people react differently to the exact same circumstances.
  • All behaviour can be situational: Even after a person has formed an intention to behave in a certain way, situational circumstances can lead to a surprisingly different behaviour.
  • Less friction results in more sustainable behaviour: Sustainable behaviour is easier and thus more likely when people face few barriers to sustainable action.

Psychology focuses on factors that influence an individual’s behaviour, either the individual alone or the individual as part of a group. Because when one small change is made by many individuals, or one individual makes many small changes, it begins to add up to a significant, positive improvement. And as growing numbers of individuals adopt sustainable behaviours, the behaviours become more ‘normal’.

Using psychology to promote sustainable actions

We are biologically programmed to care about what other people think of us and to try to make our behaviour fit in. A study of household energy use confirmed this: when asked outright, participants told experimenters that ‘what neighbours are doing’ was the least likely factor to influence their behaviour. However, the results showed that out of four different types of informational messages (environmental impact, money savings, how to instructions, and how much neighbours are cutting back), the message about neighbours’ behaviour was the only message that resulted in participants measurably reducing their own electricity use (Schultz, et al, 2007)...

Making sustainable shopping a 'social norm'

Social norms are the implicit social rules that govern behaviour within a community.

Social norms create opportunities for change. One way to bring about more sustainable shopping and consumption is to quickly bring sustainable behaviours into the realms of normal and acceptable by communicating behaviours as being what many others already do.

How do we accomplish this?

We need to give people evidence, social proof, that sustainable behaviour is both acceptable and desirable. There are many examples of social proofing in action:

  • Tip jars on bar and restaurant counters, with a bit of money already in them increase the likelihood of tipping
  • Advertisements featuring large numbers of people favouring a product increase the perception that the product is good
  • Stickers on a product claiming ‘Most Popular’ increase sales.
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Research shows that people respond more positively to a behaviour, and will imitate that behaviour, when there is social proof to evidence it.

Here are a few specific recommendations and examples as thought-starters:

Use 'localised' language

Communicate descriptive social norm related messaging to shoppers and consumers. For example, messages such as ‘9 out of 10 people in [insert town or store name here] consistently recycle’. The key is to keep it local to optimise relevance. In research studies, this type of message has effectively influenced behaviours such as hotel guests leaving towels hanging in the bathroom rather than putting them on the floor to be washed. And the more focussed the message, moving from ‘staying at this hotel chain’ to ‘have stayed in this room’ improved take up by optimising ‘local’.

Encourage demonstrations of sustainability

Another proven technique is to provide opportunities for shoppers and consumers to actively demonstrate sustainability themselves. This is because humans also notice the actions of people around them. And the more often we see a particular behaviour, the more normal it becomes in our minds. For example, the first time you see someone bring their own reusable container to the supermarket, you find it odd, but after you’ve seen it a few times you tend to become more open to the idea of trying it.

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Several coffee shops sell reusable mugs. Other customers notice these mugs and, when they see several people using them, they get the idea that it is the accepted norm and are subsequently more likely to adopt the initiative themselves.

Shoppers are most interested in and aware of the behaviour of other shoppers they consider similar to themselves. For example, to encourage shoppers to adopt reusable produce bags instead of buying fruit and vegetables packed in single use plastic, you should look for opportunities for other shoppers to demonstrate this behaviour in the same stores to other shoppers. Think store branded reusable produce bags, for example, rather than just ‘telling’ shoppers what you want them to do.

Also, direct social contact with someone who already does something sustainable increases the likelihood that other people will adopt that same behaviour. Therefore, another initiative involves forming networks of people who can work together to become more sustainable. The more people feel a part of a particular group, the more likely they are to adopt the values and behaviours that are associated with that group.

Break 'bystander confusion'

All of us have had the experience of being out in public and witnessing a situation that made us feel uncertain of what to do. This phenomenon is called bystander confusion: The tendency for individuals in a crowd to avoid helping another person who appears to be in need. The psychological explanation for bystander confusion is that the uncertainty of the situation causes people to look for cues from other people to tell them the appropriate response.

Environmental writer Janisse Ray has likened the current world climate situation to a global case of bystander confusion. Despite urgent warnings from scientists that something must be done, most people have made only a few personal changes. When we look around, we see people making minor changes but not many appear to be taking the kinds of significant steps that might actually be commensurate with the urgency of scientists’ messages.

As a result, the social cues tell us that the appropriate response is small action or ‘wait and see’.

How do you break bystander confusion?

A cycle of inaction starts to dissolve at the first sign of someone stepping forward to take decisive action. Can brands and retailers introduce simple but compelling messages that may give people the confidence to be the one to break the bystander confusion in-store?

One sure-fire way of making consumers and shoppers more sustainability minded is to make it personal. We humans are hard-wired to take special interest in anything that is related to our own selves. Messages that shoppers perceive to be personally relevant receive significantly more attention and are thus more likely to prompt deeper, deliberate processing.

When it comes to communicating with shoppers and consumers, there are as you’d expect several psychological considerations. For example, to communicate effectively, it helps to do your shopper research and understand the shoppers and consumers you are communicating with and then frame your message to be congruent with their worldviews. What are their concerns and priorities? How diverse are the worldviews within and among them? What are some of the features of their worldviews?

Incidentally, a specific communication related action involves avoiding talking about ‘environmental issues’ or ‘the environment’. Instead, highlight the human aspects of environmental issues: ‘the air we breathe’, ‘the water we drink’, etc.

Leverage habituality

As a final suggestion, human beings are habitual. A well-practiced task or routine quickly becomes second nature, and we no longer must pay attention in order to carry it out. You can start to change habits by making the sustainable choice the default, when offering people options.

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For example, when a restaurant made the default meal option vegetarian, more diners went for that meal. Although it was possible for people to request a non-vegetarian meal, few people went to the trouble. If it isn’t possible to make the sustainable option the default, at least make it the first and most obvious choice on shelf.


I hope that these brief examples show that psychology and behavioural science have a lot to offer when it comes to helping shoppers and consumers shop and consumer more sustainably.

Although it is all well and good to create rules and laws and to tax people in to changing their habits for the good of planet Earth, we need to remember there are other ways too.

A lot of what psychology can do to help involves simple initiatives that require minimal effort on the part of the shopper and consumer and yet can lead to dramatic improvements in sustainability.

So the final question is this:

Why wouldn’t you embrace all that psychology and behavioural science can do in the global race for survival?

Hmm, something to think about.

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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