If economic activities and processes
are a major contribution to environmental degradation (Peattie 2010; Bertoli et
al 2014; Hwang 2010), then sustainable consumption would ideally be an
efficient remedy. However, past studies have found that high environmental
knowledge rarely increases green consumerism (Fuhrer & Kaiser 2003; Agyeman
& Kollmuss 2002; Peattie 2010; Kibert 2000). If this is the case, what
prevents consumers from applying their awareness of environmental issues to
their purchasing behaviors? In addition, what methods can be used to close the
gap between environmental awareness and action in terms of sustainable consumerism?
This research review takes these questions into account and studies the reasons
consumers choose so-called environmentally friendly products, as well as why
they choose conventional (or less sustainable) products. It concludes with
suggestions for improvement for both consumers and producers.
Sustainable consumption is defined
in this review as consumption that occurs with the intention of lessening one’s
environmental impact. Because both unsustainable levels and varieties of
consumption are a major contribution to environmental degradation (Peattie
2010; Bertoli et al 2014; Hwang 2010), it would stand that “greening” our
consumer practices would be a crucial part in creating sustainable societies.
The possibility of a so-called “green economy” has not gone unnoticed. Greater
and more widespread awareness of environmental issues has led to consumer
demand for green products, and such products have become more readily available
as a result (Bertoli et al 2014; Lawrence et al 2002). However, literature on
the viability of green consumerism presents mixed results of the effects of
such green products and consumption. One particularly important and valid
criticism is that green consumption may encourage less environmentally harsh
products, but does not address the fact that developed societies rely on
excessive consumption, which is an unsustainable practice in itself (Peattie
2010; Roberts & Straughan 1999; Muldoon 2006). However, it is possible that
green consumption has lacked a significant positive environmental effect
because of the so-called “green gap”. The green gap refers to the gap between
knowledge and behavior that is present when consumers who are aware of
ecological degradation and resulting ecologically friendly products do not
choose such products over less sustainable options (Agyeman & Kollmuss
2002). Green consumption and the resulting green gap is a convoluted topic due
to the variety of different behaviors (and drivers for those behaviors) that
occur during the consumption process. This is only exacerbated by the many
different categories of green products that can be consumed (not all green
products are targeted towards the same environmental issues.) For instance,
Peattie (2010) notes that there is the possibility of a divide between the
desires for and the effects of green consumption, which has not often been
taken into account in past literature. Similarly, Lawrence and colleagues
(2002) posit that, rather than consumers being either green or brown, they can
typically be described as both due to the opportunities and priorities that
often rival each other during the consumption process.
Past research has, however,
attempted to understand and categorize the topic. According to Roberts and Straughan
(1999), the green gap has been studied namely from demographic and
psychological perspectives. With the exception of gender (females tend to
consume more green products than males), they found that demographic indicators
have not proven to be very relevant in green consumption. In contrast, psychological
indicators, although a somewhat newer area of study, have provided some telling
results. It is worth noting that past research methods have been recognized as
being flawed. For instance, Fuhrer & Kaiser (2003) note that sloppy
statistical procedures can provide misleading results, and Agyeman &
Kollmuss (2002) state that pro-environmental behavior in general is so complex
that attempting to understand it from the lense of only one framework is
unrealistic. It is worth noting, therefore, that inconsistencies in research
results regarding green consumption may be due to flaws in methodology of the
This research review relied on 19
studies total. 5 of these studies provided a theoretical perspective on
sustainable consumption as a whole, as well as the reasons behind and limits to
green consumption and how this contributes to the green gap. The remaining 14
studies served as case studies for practical insights and implications
regarding green consumption and the green gap. These studies focused on the
difference between environmental awareness and action, and were searched for
similar successes and failures regarding factors that both hinder and encourage
green consumption. They were also searched for methods to improve any
deficiencies regarding ways that sustainable consumption can be increased and
improved. The case studies and theoretical studies often overlapped, and
therefore connections were found between the theory and application of the
These studies were found through
three online databases: Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and Sophia Search. The
following search terms were used: “green
consumption; green consumerism; sustainable consumption case study; green
consumerism case study; green consumerism case study; the green gap problem;
green knowledge-behavior gap; green purchasing behavior; environmental
awareness and action gap; environmental knowledge-behavior gap case study;
environmental knowledge conservation behavior; responsibility for the
environment “ecological behavior”.” The compilation of studies was
not restricted to a specific geographic or cultural region or a particular type
of market. This was done in order to attempt to provide more holistic results.
Explaining the Green Gap
Three main commonalities were found
in this review regarding why the green gap exists. This review categorized them
as: (1) layers of knowledge and behavior, (2) green consumption as sacrifice,
and (3) structural blocks. They will be discussed in this order.
Layers of Knowledge and Behavior
It is now generally accepted within
the literature that increased knowledge of a particular topic doesn’t
necessarily coincide with altered behavior (Fuhrer & Kaiser 2003; Agyeman
& Kollmuss 2002; Peattie 2010; Kibert 2000). Should that suggest that
knowledge has no impact on behavior then, and that attempts at increasing green
consumption should be focused elsewhere? This review found that knowledge is
perhaps not the sole factor when increasing sustainable consumerism but is by
no means negligible. This is because it is not only awareness of environmental
issues that increases behavior; rather, it is different layers of environmental
knowledge that lead to behavioral adjustment. Fuhrer & Kaiser (2003) call
this “convergence of knowledge”, putting forth that a variety of types of
knowledge converging towards an environmental goal is what increases
ecologically friendly behavior. In particular, this review posits that there is
a difference between environmental education for awareness and environmental
education for action. The promotion of a certain behavior is as much a form of
knowledge as the promotion of awareness of a certain topic. If environmental
education focuses solely on ecological issues and not on behaviors that can be
taken to improve them, then that environmental education would likely have
little effect on behavior. Peattie (2010) muses that environmental knowledge
regarding ecological issues and the effects consumption has on such issues need
to be considered two distinct categories in order for them to be understood and
This review found that knowledge –
including layered knowledge – was not the only predecessor to environmental
behavior however. Holistic knowledge works with other psychological indicators
and drivers towards ecologically friendly behavior. Bowler and colleagues
(1999) considered a combination of knowledge, values, and responsibility to
influence pro-environmental behavior. Chang and colleagues (2012) found that a
combination of three factors, named “green consumption attitudes”, “green
subjective norms”, and “green perceived behavioral control”, strongly and
positively influenced sustainable consumer behavior. Similarly, Kaman Lee
(2010) found three indicators influenced sustainable consumption: impact by
peers was the strongest, involvement in the local environment was the second
strongest, and concrete environmental knowledge (or knowledge that was focused
on action) was the third strongest. Regardless of whether only knowledge was
considered in a study, or if knowledge was considered with other factors, the
results of this review found that the aspect of “layers”, or several types of
comprehension and drivers, strongly influenced behavior. Knowledge by itself,
or only limited forms of knowledge, did not.
Green Consumption as Sacrifice
While combining varying types of
knowledge may create stronger sustainable consumer behavior, the fact still
stands that consumption relies heavily on action rather than only premeditated
thought. When it comes to putting green consumption into practice, this review
found that sustainable consumption was often viewed as a sacrifice in a way
that unsustainable consumption was not. Bowler and colleagues (1999) note that
“abstinence of consumption is usually done at one’s own expense.” It is
therefore assumed that to consume in a sustainable way, one must be “missing
out” on a certain product and/or experience that comes with that product. Boivin
and colleagues (2012) expands on this by stating that a variety of perceived
risks is responsible for the green gap. In particular, functional (product
ineffectiveness), financial (fear of paying more while getting less), and
temporal risks (a longer amount of time put into researching and purchasing
products) were considered to hinder sustainable consumption. These risks would
entail a greater amount of effort on the consumer’s part to determine whether
or not products were worth the purchase. Within the studies the notion of
excessive effort was especially present. Hwang and colleagues (2010) found that
time and mental effort into researching (as well as making a decision about)
sustainable products were significant blocks to sustainable consumption.
Frederiks and colleagues (2014) call this “shortcuts through mental complexity”.
Consumers choose the type of products in which the least amount of mental and
temporal effort (and therefore sacrifice) is involved. This appears to lead to
the idea of compromise or tradeoffs where green consumption is concerned, even
for consumers who would identify as “green”. Therefore, there is both a seeming
lack of motivation for green consumption as well as conflicting motivations.
For instance, Lawrence and colleagues (2002) found that an array of conflicting
motivations could discourage consumers from purchasing organic food. These
included, but were not limited to, unsustainable consumption being strong
habit, safety and quality of organic food, as well as skepticism regarding the
sustainability of organic food and whether or not purchasing it would actually
make enough of a difference on the environment. Similarly, Connolly &
Prothero (2008) found that compromise was accepted as a necessary evil among
green consumers, even those who were strongly aligned with their
pro-environmental values (e.g. by joining environmental groups, or boycotting
certain businesses). Green consumption could therefore be viewed as something
of a chore or struggle. Rather than consistently choosing so-called green
products or consistently “brown” ones, consumers often ricocheted between the
two on a daily basis. As such, consumers could be described neither as simply
“green” nor “brown”, but rather a combination of both. Therefore, a combination
of environmental education without action and a lack of research and effort on the
part of consumers leads to a gap between environmental awareness and
Something that has been ignored in
the research literature is the importance the structure in which green
consumption occurs. Individuals and their respective consumption choices have
often been the focus of green consumption studies (Kaman Lee 2010; Muldoon
2006), with little focus on the availability and practicality of consuming
sustainably. Of course consumption is often done in an individual manner, but
individual consumption is influenced by the wider social setting (Spaargaren
2003). The idea of consumption and its effects being structural is perhaps best
exemplified by Csutora (2012) who found that so-called brown consumers had less
of a negative impact on the environment with their consumption practices than
consumers who purchased with the intention of reducing their impact on the
environment. This study found that consumers who were environmentally unaware
tended to act in a more environmentally friendly way in terms of electricity
use and transit practices than their environmentally aware counterparts. This
was because they consumed less than
their environmentally aware counterparts, who typically had higher incomes. It
was therefore a structural and socioeconomic determinant that determined green
consumption, although the consumer was unaware of it.
“Structure” of course means that
what is provided by producers, or what is able to be consumed, could actually
be described as sustainable. Spaargaren (2003) puts forth that the availability
of sustainable options was a key determinant in consumers “greening” their
consumption in term of energy, waste, and water. Similarly, Hwang and
colleagues (2010) found that “situational factors” were important in
determining green consumption. These factors included, but were not limited to,
lifestyle, experience with different products and services, and living
situation. This review therefore found that a lack of “layered” knowledge and
behavior, along with sacrifices associated with green consumption, exacerbated
by sustainability not being a priority in structured consumption, contribute to
the green gap.
Closing the Green Gap
Based on the results of this
research review, it appears that in order to close the green gap, two types of
adjustment must occur: structural and behavioral. The availability of
sustainable products showed up as a key factor in consumer purchasing decisions
in this review, but the viability of increasing availability is beyond the means
of this paper. Therefore, this review considers what can be done by those who
provide sustainable products as of now. In particular, the role of green
marketing could be influential in terms of structural alleviators. Green
labeling could be especially beneficial because it could provide a shortcut for
consumers to determine if a product has more sustainable components than its
counterparts (Peattie 2010; Hwang et al 2010). This would only be effective if
the systems behind the green label are legitimate of course, and not merely a
form of greenwashing. Green marketing in general could certainly alleviate the
feeling that green consumption is sacrificial in terms of time and effort, as
well as aiding consumers in combining their various types of knowledge into
action. Marketing should perhaps be done on a small scale though as context is
very important, particularly because consumption changes per culture (Peattie
2010). For instance, Kaman Lee (2010) proposed that young shoppers in Hong Kong
could be encouraged to sustainably consume by green marketing efforts focusing
on encouraging group shopping. This was because peer influence was the
strongest indicator of consumption. This was a finding focused specifically on
young people in Hong Kong however, so it can’t be said whether or not it would
be effective in general.
Alongside green marketing, providing
social incentives could encourage behavioral change among consumers following
structural changes by producers. This is already partially a component of green
products. Consumers tend to have a higher regard for themselves when they
purchase green products. Xiao and Li ( 2011) found that consumers who purchased
green products reported stronger feelings of life satisfaction. Similarly, Boivin
and colleagues (2012) found that certain risks were associated more with
unsustainable products than sustainable products. One of these risks were
categorized as “psychosocial”. When consumers purchased green products, they
felt as though they were fulfilling a responsibility and trend, and this in
turn made them feel as though they appeared to be a better person. There
appears to already be opportunities to incorporate social incentives into
sustainable consumption then. If this could be expanded on, then social incentives
may be able to be used in encouraging the combination of environmental
knowledge and action. Social components are perhaps a more theoretical
suggestion, but Briceno & Stagl (2006) noted the importance of
incorporating social aspects into product-service systems for Local Exchange
Trading Systems, and suggested that programs with a social focus were more
likely to be successful.
used as research review in order to discover commonalities in reasons regarding
the “green gap”. The results found that several types of knowledge were more
likely to lead to action than only one, that green consumption was often
stigmatized as being sacrificial, and that green consumption faces structural
blocks that are not capable of being addressed by consumer’s, but rather
producer’s. This review recommends using green marketing in specific cultural
context, as well as providing social incentives, to aid in closing the green
gap. This review was limited by a small number of studies. In addition, although
this review sought to find cross-cultural implications across markets, it is
accepted by the researcher that considering studies across cultures and markets
may lead to a lack of awareness regarding those specific cultures and markets.
This study also did not look at the effect of “greenwashing”, or products that
are presented as sustainable but are actually not.
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