The journey to conscious and sustainable consumption is fraught with obstacles, challenges, and oftentimes, confusion. As much as we may want to change our habits and shopping behavior, there will always be barriers that get in the way. In fact, a global survey from Stanford University reported that 87% of consumers are concerned with the impact of what they buy, but only 33% have bought eco-friendly products. So what’s stopping us?
By becoming more aware of common deterrents to pro-environmental behavior, we can be better prepared to overcome them and continue making a positive difference for the planet. Generally, barriers to consumer behavioral change can be separated into several categories: cognitive, structural/economic, and social. Cognitive barriers start with your mindset and preliminary knowledge about sustainable products. Structural and economic barriers have to do with product availability and accessibility, in regards to socioeconomic and geographic status. Finally, and arguably the most important, social barriers have to do with our communal expectations and norms that shape the way we behave. The first step to solving a problem is to identify it, so let’s take a deeper look at these barriers and how to overcome them, as researched by psychologists, activists, and retail industry experts.
Barrier 1: Lack of Awareness or Knowledge
Many of us are eager to make a difference, but simply don’t know how. Or maybe we think we know, but have only scratched the surface. A lack of awareness for sustainable options or knowledge of what products to purchase and actions to take can be paralyzing. It also limits the impact of your actions. For example, a few years ago I was shocked to learn how much of what we recycle still ends up in a landfill! Since then, I’ve explored some better practices and tried to reduce my consumption overall.
What you don’t know can hurt the planet, and the only cure for not knowing is to start reading! To overcome this barrier (even if you think you already have), start listening to informational podcasts, watching climate change documentaries, and reading up on your favorite brands’ manufacturing processes to see if they align with your values.
Barrier 2: Perceived Risk, Distrust, or Negative Associations of “Green Brands”
In a survey of 2,000 Americans, 61% said they believe “green goods” don’t perform as well as traditional products. From cleaning supplies being too weak on dirt to electric cars lacking power, sometimes labels of sustainability result in negative associations with quality. If someone has this preconceived bias of certain items, they may opt for less sustainable options. However, many of those stereotypes were formed when eco-friendly options first hit the shelves. Since then, they’ve adapted and improved in order to compete with traditional markets.
If this is something you’re worried about, take the time to read reviews so you can select brands that meet your standards while still keeping an eye out for the planet.
Barrier 3: Limited Retail Availability
Having limited or difficult-to-find sustainable and sweatshop-free options in brick-and-mortar retail stores is a common and serious structural barrier. The sustainable product assortment carried by your local Walmart, Target, or grocer is a mere fraction compared to traditional product shelves, ranging from apparel, cleansers, makeup, and produce. As demand for earth-conscious products goes up, they’re more likely to go out of stock (at least until the corporations start to notice!). What’s more, you may have trouble locating them in the store’s layout since certain products will be categorized differently from the traditional item you’re replacing.
Overall, the dominating retail environment can make it incredibly difficult and inconvenient to shop consciously.
To remedy this, I would suggest shopping online and arranging for pick-up, so that you know what’s in stock at each store and can seamlessly search for your eco-friendly products. To go the extra mile, try shopping from ethical online marketplaces or direct-to-consumer brands that are making a difference.
Barrier 4: Strained Economic Resources
It’s an extreme privilege to have the time, knowledge, and financial resources to practice pro-environmental shopping behaviors. While a growing number of consumers are willing to pay a premium price for products with a moral cause, we must recognize that not everyone is in a comfortable position to do so.
Even if the item’s production process is not ideal, it’s hard to refuse a bargain or store-brand item that doesn’t break the bank! That’s how industries like fast fashion have had such exponential growth – they sell goods at unbelievably low prices, encouraging frequent purchases that boost your dopamine, and keep you coming back for more. However, the extra price associated with quality and ethically-made apparel can actually pay off in the long run. If you’re a conscious consumer on a budget, I urge you to think of every purchase as a long-term investment. Buying a reusable water bottle, washable “paper” towels, or a Fair Trade pair of jeans may seem more expensive now, but over time every sustainable swap will save you money because of their better quality!
Barrier 5: Social Norms and Comparisons
Last but not least, social norms and community standards are the primary determinants of our behavior, especially when it concerns the environment. Therefore, it can be one of the biggest barriers to overcome. If your family, friends, or coworkers aren’t concerned with their impact on the environment or how their purchases affect workers overseas, it can be incredibly tough to stick to your individual goals.
On the other hand, having a community that keeps you accountable is incredibly influential! Seek out like-minded people wherever you can – with online communities like Brightly growing every day, it won’t be hard to find a squad to cheer you on.
How to Break Your Current Habits
Before you get overwhelmed by these barriers, it may be helpful to return to some basics. Ultimately, changing your shopping behavior means changing your habits. And unfortunately, it’s much harder to change repetitive shopping behaviors than those big one-time purchases. No worries, though! Psychologists have a few suggestions of how to break cyclical habits:
- Destress – You’re more likely to act unfavorably when you’re stressed, tired, or overwhelmed. It’s important to notice what emotional circumstances may be leading to you repeatedly falling into traps like fast fashion, bulk discounts, or not recycling.
- Know your cues – Do you frequently buy a single-use water bottle at the gym because you forgot that Camelbak, again? Or maybe you buy a new outfit for each special event you’re invited to? This is an example of routine and reward, and it’s important to recognize it to break the cycle.
- Replace bad habits with good ones – Once you’ve identified root causes and cycles that lead to packaged or unsustainable indulgence, you can begin to make changes by replacing one behavior with another.
- Have a better reason for change – You care about the planet, which is why you want to make a change, but sometimes individual actions may seem too far removed from climate change or polluted oceans. If you’re having trouble feeling motivated or impactful, find a personal motivator. What do you want beaches to look like for your future grandchildren? What animals have you always admired, and how can you link your actions to helping them out?
- Set smarter goals – This won’t happen overnight. So, make tangible goals that can incrementally change your habits over time. Maybe you start by replacing your bottled soaps with bars the next time you run out, or participate in a time-controlled challenge like Remake’s 90 Days of No New Clothes.
Remember, You Got This
No matter what barriers you face while striving to reach your ideal consumer profile and low waste footprint, remember that it’s common to struggle! Knowing how to recognize and rewire your cognitive, structural, and social constraints will help you achieve your full potential as a mover and shaker in the conscious consumerism movement!