Barriers to sustainable consumption and purchasing include a lack of information and awareness about sustainability products and services, a lack of trust in sustainability claims, ingrained non-sustainable consumer habits, a lack of quality and/or functionality regarding sustainable products, poor availability of sustainable products and services, and higher prices of sustainable products and services. These barriers have been relevant over the past 20 years, as numerous research studies and reports have referenced them over this time frame. Likewise, over this same period, researchers, academics, and scientists have provided a range of recommendations and advice on how to combat these barriers from a marketing and psychological perspective. These findings have been explored in detail below.
1. Lack of Information & Awareness About Sustainability Products and Services
- Today: Although the vast majority of people tend to be aware of sustainability in general and feel its important, there is limited awareness of the specific products and services available to them. This is evidenced, for example, by a 2019 survey of college students which found a lack of awareness about the available sustainability initiatives right in their very own campus. The study notes: “Although the university has committed to climate and sustainability agreements, majority of the students were not aware of it and only about 17% knew that the University’s Strategic Plan has a sustainability component. Nearly 36% of the students reported receiving information about sustainability during their campus orientation. In terms of recycling, a majority of the students indicated unawareness of e-waste recycling on campus; however, more than 70% reported that the library limited free printing in computer labs. More than half of the students also indicated that sustainability issues were not infused into curriculum courses or programs, and they had no knowledge of any alternative power source for the university. We concluded that a majority of the students were not conversant with sustainability issues and were largely unaware of campus sustainability initiatives. We recommended more effort to increase sustainability initiatives on campus by involving faculty, staff, and students in such endeavors. Educational programs should incorporate sustainability into their curriculum to increase students’ knowledge and consciousness regarding these issues.” Although this recommendation is specific to education, this same general approach can be logically applied to any business or brand by finding ways to get customers actively involved and engaged with sustainable measures. For example, a brand could run a giveaway or a contest which gets consumers involved in a sustainability initiative that helps drive awareness or use of a sustainable product.
- Past 10 Years: An academic paper published in 2015 in the Environmental Engineering and Management Journal suggests that lack of information and awareness is a key barrier to sustainable development among consumers. As a way to decrease these barriers, the paper suggests the use of the following communication channels: advertising campaigns, use of well-known labels, educational websites, leaflets, packaging, and in-store communication. In terms of marketing, the paper suggests properly training marketers and sales personnel. Additionally, the paper suggests providing support to public awareness campaigns, databases and bench marking surveys.
- Past 20 Years: According to a report published by the Standford Social Innovation Review in the fall of 2008, “To increase the sales of environmentally sensible products companies must remove [the lack of awareness surrounding sustainability, a key barrier] […] In other words, they must increase consumers’ awareness of green products.” The report also clarifies that the importance of this barrier varies by product, industry, and geography. A lack of awareness may not be a key barrier across the board. Furthermore, the study states, “More than one-third of consumers we surveyed say they would like to take action against climate change but do not know what to do. […] Consumers are equally confused about buying green products—and with good reason. Many attempts to label green products are meaningless at best and bewildering at worst. For example, a current labeling program indicates how much carbon dioxide an item’s production, packaging, and shipment emitted—that is, its ‘carbon footprint.’ But calculating carbon footprints requires some very fancy math and results in numbers that few people intuitively understand. ‘What does it mean to say a bag of chips contains 75 grams of carbon?’ asked Steve Howard, CEO of the Climate Group, in a March 6, 2008, BusinessWeek article. ‘I have a PhD in environmental physics and it does not mean a thing to me.'”
2. Lack of Trust in Sustainability Claims
- Today: A consumer survey of 30,000 global consumers conducted in 2020 by The Conference Board found that trust was the second most common barrier to consumers engaging in better environmental practices. To combat this, The Conference Board suggests that, “companies can seek certification from independent organizations about their environmental and social practices. In addition, communicating in concrete terms the sustainability benefits of buying choices, such as the amount of packaging saved, can enhance a brand’s appeal to consumers.”
- Past 10 Years: An academic paper published in 2015 in the Environmental Engineering and Management Journal suggests that a lack of trust in clams is a key barrier to sustainable development among consumers. As a way to decrease these barriers, the paper suggests the use of the following communication tactics: endorsements and labels, linking products, and reporting. In terms of marketing, the paper suggests relying on independent certification, and implementing procedures to prevent irresponsible marketing practices. Additionally, the paper suggests supporting certification schemes and implementing a CSR strategy and reporting.
- Past 20 Years: According to a report published by the Standford Social Innovation Review in the fall of 2008, “Consumers doubt not only the quality of green products, but also their very greenness, according to the GfK Roper survey. Although they trust the environmental claims of scientists and environmental groups, they tend not to believe the claims of government, media, and business—and justifiably. A 2007 study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. examined 1,753 environmental product claims and found that all but one were misleading or just plain false. In the misleading category: Some companies tout product features that are actually mandated by law. For example, TerraChoice found insecticides, lubricants, oven cleaner gels, cleaners, and disinfectants all labeled as CFC-free. But no products sold today in the United States have CFCs, because the federal government banned the ozone-eating propellants almost three decades ago. Other companies mislead consumers by highlighting one positive product feature while not mentioning their other negative qualities. For instance, paper or lumber products tout their recycled content or sustainable harvesting without noting the impact of their manufacturing processes on air and water emissions or global warming. And in the just plain false category: A dishwasher detergent boasted on its 100 percent plastic container that it used 100 percent recycled paper.”
3. Ingrained Non-Sustainable Consumer Habits
- Today: According to an academic report published in 2019 in the Sage Journal of Marketing titled ‘How to Shift Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable,’ says unsustainable habits must be changed in order to drive long-term sustainable behavior and that this can be done by making sustainable actions easy and using other techniques that strengthen positive habits. The report states as follows: “Whereas some sustainable behaviors (e.g., installing an efficient showerhead) require only a one-time action, many other sustainable behaviors (e.g., taking shorter showers) involve repeated actions that require new habit formation. Habits refer to behaviors that persist because they have become relatively automatic over time as a result of regularly encountered contextual cues. Because many common habits are unsustainable, habit change is a critical component of sustainable behavior change. Many behaviors with sustainability implications—such as food consumption, choice of transportation, energy and resource use, shopping, and disposal of products—are strongly habitual. Interventions that break repetition, such as discontinuity and penalties, can disrupt bad habits. Actions that encourage repetition, such as making sustainable actions easy and utilizing prompts, incentives, and feedback, can strengthen positive habits […] Many sustainable actions are viewed as effortful, time-consuming, or difficult to carry out, which can be a barrier to sustainable actions. Thus, one strategy to encourage sustainable habit formation is to make the action easier to do. Contextual changes that improve the ease of engaging in sustainable behaviors, such as placing recycling bins nearby, requiring less complex sorting of recyclables, and offering showerheads with ‘low-flow’ settings, encourage such behaviors. One means of making sustainable actions easier is to make them the default. In one example, when sustainable electricity was set as the default option, individuals were more likely to stick with it. Because consumers are often low on cognitive resources, simplifying the decision-making process can allow them to more automatically form sustainable habits.”
- Past 10 Years: An academic paper published in 2015 in the Environmental Engineering and Management Journal suggests that consumer habits are a key barrier to sustainable development among consumers. As a way to decrease these barriers, the paper suggests the use of the following communication tactics: using influential models (e.g. movie stars) and avoiding the use of over-technical claims. In terms of marketing, the paper suggests offering free tests of the product or service and providing behavior change tools. Additionally, the paper suggests supporting the phasing out of “old” products.
- Past 20 Years: A report published in 2009 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency titled ‘The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior’ notes the following: “Human behavior underlies almost all environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. Research in psychology offers clues as to why people engage in unsustainable behaviors despite their concern about the broader consequences. At the same time, the research also explains why people go out of their way to behave sustainably, and how it is possible to motivate and empower sustainable actions. The goal of the psychology of sustainable behavior is to create the conditions that make sustainable action the most appealing or natural choice. Most people want to live in a way that treats the ecosystems we depend on with care and respect, and people express increasing worry about the state of our natural environment. Yet we all find ourselves engaging in unsustainable daily behaviors that have negative environmental impacts. We are intelligent, thinking creatures. Why is it so difficult for us to change our behavior and act upon our environmental concerns? One reason is that though our rational minds may know that change is needed, it is not always our rational minds that drive our behavior. One of the most important observations from psychological research is that many decisions are made by automatic, unconscious processes on the basis of information that our conscious, rational brains are hardly aware of. There is accumulating psychological and neuroscience evidence that thinking is the product of two separate systems of reasoning: a rule-based system, which is conscious, rational and deliberate, and an associative system, which is unconscious, sensory-driven and impulsive. […] Sustainable behaviors have little appeal to the associative system. Consider a behavior like biking to work: a person’s rule-based system thinks it’s a great idea because of all the benefits (health, money savings, fitness), but his associative system responds with a definitive “No way!” perhaps because it just can’t handle the idea of walking into the office with “helmet hair.” One way to empower sustainability is to make sustainable actions appealing to the associative system (the Homer Simpson in each of us). A second strategy is to get the attention of the rule-based system so that it can assert itself against the associative system’s rejection of a sustainable action (“Helmet hair is really no big deal. We’re biking!”). An even better strategy does both: makes a sustainable action appealing and attention-getting for both rational reasons as well as gut-feeling, associative-system reasons.” The remainder of the report dives deep on psychological tips for combating this barrier, which is suggested for further readings.
4. Lack of Quality and/or Functionality Regarding Sustainable Products
- Today: According to a research study published in 2020 in the Journal of Business Ethics, “A key barrier against sustainable consumption is the perceived trade-off between sustainability and functional product quality. Prior research shows that for product categories where strength-related attributes are valued, consumers may prefer less sustainable products because they are perceived as more effective than sustainable alternatives. This effect has become known as the ‘sustainability liability effect.’ […] Understanding when sustainability is a liability and when it is an asset is vital information for marketers of sustainable products. The present work supports prior research showing that sustainability can be a disadvantage in categories where strength-related attributes are valued. We demonstrate across three studies that even green peripheral attributes lead to negative functional quality inferences, which reduce consumers’ preferences for the products. Therefore, contrary to prior advice to use peripheral attributes to attenuate a liability effect, our findings imply that companies should try to overcome the seemingly paradoxical effect that consumers infer poorer functional product quality even when the packaging is sustainable. […] Consumers should be encouraged to reflect upon the type of green attribute and its implications for functional quality. For example, when introducing a new version of a strength-dependent product in green packaging, companies may highlight the fact that the core attribute (the ingredients) is the same.”
- Past 10 Years: An academic paper published in 2015 in the Environmental Engineering and Management Journal suggests that a lack of quality and/or functionality is a key barrier to sustainable development among consumers. As a way to decrease these barriers, the paper suggests providing consumers re-assurance on basic functions. In terms of marketing, the paper suggests focusing on differentiation in terms of design, as well as obtaining certifications of quality. Additionally, the paper suggests implementing a solid quality management strategy.
- Past 20 Years: According to a report published by the Standford Social Innovation Review in the fall of 2008, “Even when consumers can correctly identify environmentally sound products, the green label sometimes proves to be the kiss of death. Some green products—such as Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius automobile—have become status symbols, but many environmentally friendly products suffer an image problem. According to the 2007 GfK Roper Green Gauge study of more than 2,000 Americans, fully 61 percent believe that green goods perform worse than conventional items. Indeed, early green products often trailed behind their conventional competition. Early hybrid cars, for example, had less power than non-hybrid cars. CFL light bulbs also had to overcome problems: Early versions were slow to light up, had weak light when they did illuminate, and didn’t fit properly into most normal light fixtures.”
5. Poor Availability of Sustainable Products and Services
- Today: A survey published in 2020 found that there was an increase in the number of consumers who say that a lack of access to sustainable products in their local stores made the unable to buy them. Supporting manufacturers and supply chain players that produce environmentally friendly products and services is one recommended way to combat this barrier, according to the EPA.
- Past 10 Years: An academic paper published in 2015 in the Environmental Engineering and Management Journal suggests that poor availability is a key barrier to sustainable development among consumers. As a way to decrease these barriers, the paper suggests providing customers with in-store communication and training sales staff to more effectively maximize distribution. Additionally, the paper recommends contacting the CR manager of the retailer to make use of negotiations.
- Past 20 Years: According to a report published by the Standford Social Innovation Review in the fall of 2008, “Having decided to buy Earth-friendly items, many consumers encounter a final hurdle: They can’t find them. Biofuel enthusiasts, for example, must often drive out of their way to fill up on their chosen fuel. Many energy-conscious homeowners have no other choice than to buy dirty power because their local utilities simply do not offer clean energy. And many contractors do not know where to purchase green building materials. The reason consumers cannot find these products is that businesses are not stocking them. In 2007, we did an informal survey of 23 grocery retailers in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. We found that fewer than half offered green products besides organic food and CFLs. Among the minority that did proffer eco-friendly nonfood items, only about 10 percent stocked more than one product.”
6. Higher Prices of Sustainable Products and Services
- Today: A consumer survey of 30,000 global consumers conducted in 2020 by The Conference Board found that price was the number one barrier to consumers engaging in better environmental practices. This is the number one barrier reported by consumers globally. To combat this, The Conference Board suggests “Innovating around sustainability offers an opportunity for companies to introduce new additional benefits that consumers value, which can reduce shoppers’ sensitivity to price. [Additionally,] to make sustainable products more affordable, companies can consider various cost-efficiency strategies, including industry-wide collaborations, such as developing and sharing recycling technologies.”
- Past 10 Years: An academic paper published in 2015 in the Environmental Engineering and Management Journal suggests that high prices are a key barrier to sustainable development among consumers. As a way to decrease these barriers, the paper suggests showing consumers the economic benefits (e.g. energy savings). In terms of marketing, the paper suggests targeting a broader range of demographics, not only the A class, as well as offering consumer credits or payment plans to compensate for the added costs. Lastly, the paper suggests lobbying for stricter standards and financial incentives (e.g. tax and subsidies).
- Past 20 Years: According to a report published by the Standford Social Innovation Review in the fall of 2008, “Consumers who get past the sometimes checkered history of eco-friendly products often encounter a fourth barrier: their frequently higher prices. Indeed, price is the largest barrier to buying green products, found the U.K. Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in its 2007 survey of 3,600 U.K. consumers. Close to half of this survey’s participants want a two-year return on the premium price they pay for a product. Yet 70 percent of green appliances, including energy-efficient televisions, washers, and dryers, take longer to recoup their purchasers’ money. Solar power is another example where, according to our analysis of data from the California Energy Commission, a combination of recent technological advances, government subsidies, and good weather have helped reduce the payback period to less than 10 years in California, making residential photovoltaic usage a practical reality for some consumers but still an expensive luxury for others. Because consumers perceive the benefits of green goods to be small and long term, they often view the often higher costs of these products to be too high.”