With the amount of shopping days until Christmas fast running out, consumers who would like to make ‘green’ choices are often helpless to change their behaviour, according to research at the University of Surrey. The project, which was funded by ESRC, warns policymakers that eco-taxes and information campaigns have only a limited impact on how people behave. ‘Many people care about the environment but they are stuck in unsustainable patterns of behaviour because they just don’t have access to reliable, affordable alternatives. It is wrong to assume that they have free choice in the matter,’ says Professor Tim Jackson who carried out the research. ‘Consumers need practical incentives to buy ‘green’ goods and services and a very clear signal that the government is putting its own house in order.’
The Surrey findings are based on a study of the extensive literature on consumption, consumer behaviour and behavioural change. ‘Many studies have found a kind of insatiability and irrationality in modern society. People buy more and more stuff – way beyond what they appear to need,’ says Jackson. ‘But consumer goods play important roles in defining who we are and giving a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives. Asking people to give all that up, without offering decent alternatives, is not really an option.’ The research also highlights the social constraints that face more deprived communities in their efforts to act more sustainably. ‘Poorer households have less money to afford organic foods, more efficient appliances or fair trade goods,’ Jackson explains. ‘But they also face a raft of other disadvantages. Access to a clean environment, affordable public transport and convenient recycling facilities are often worse in more deprived areas.’
It isn’t all doom and gloom however. The Surrey research documents a range of options open to policy-makers seeking to encourage more sustainable lifestyles. ‘Government has a vital role to play in nurturing and supporting community-based initiatives for social change: neighbourhood wind farms, school transport plans, car-sharing schemes, cycle routes and better recycling facilities. Social support is vital in encouraging people to break unsustainable habits,’ Jackson says.