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Sustainable consumption dilemmas

Author

Listed:
  • Kees Vringer

    (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency)

  • Herman R. J. Vollebergh

    (Tilburg University)

  • Daan van Soest

    (VU University Amsterdam)

  • Eline van der Heijden

    (Tilburg University)

  • Frank Dietz

    (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency)

Abstract

Consumers only occasionally choose to buy sustainable products. At the same time these consumers say in surveys that sustainability is important to them, and that the government should promote sustainable consumption. Most likely, a social dilemma is at play here. Everyone would be better off if we all consume sustainably; but because of the higher prices for sustainable products, there is an incentive for each individual to leave sustainability efforts to others. Government measures to promote sustainable consumption would resolve the social dilemma. But do consumers really want to increase sustainability? This study takes a closer look at public support for sustainable consumption and the associated dilemmas, with the help of a behavioural economics experiment of group decisions. In the experiment, participants had to decide whether they were willing to buy more sustainable varieties of meat or chocolate instead of less sustainable conventional varieties. They actually had to buy the product agreed upon for one week. The results show that a large number of participants, who did not usually buy sustainable products, were willing to commit to buying sustainable products. This gap may partially be explained by ‘conditional cooperation’ phenomena. In addition participants appear insensitive to the size of the collective benefit. However, the participants in our experiment seem to have difficulties to force others to buy sustainable products. They seem to be caught in a moral dilemma in which they weigh the feel-good effect of contributing to a collective good against the higher individual costs of buying sustainable products and forcing others to do so. Also we found that the preference of the participants for, or dislike of, a measure beforehand did not say much about their appreciation of the measure afterwards. Based on the results we draw the following policy conclusions. Since consumers do not always act in accordance with their values, the presently low market shares of sustainable products do not adequately reflect consumer support for government policy to promote sustainable consumption. To stimulate consumption of sustainable products, it may be useful to emphasize the feel-good effect (‘warm glow’) of individual contributions to sustainability. Furthermore, the government could make use of the fact that most consumers are ‘conditionally cooperative’, e.g. by convincing individual consumers that enough others are switching to sustainable products, too. In this context, it appears that consumers prefer ‘soft’ incentive measures (e.g. subsidies) over ‘hard’ restrictive regulations, even if their individual financial benefit from the former will be smaller. The freedom of choice is apparently worth it. However, rules and regulations, even in the form of bans of less sustainable product varieties, can be acceptable and more effective – as long as the government takes the lead in setting up these rules and regulations. Les consommateurs ne choisissent qu’occasionnellement d’acheter des produits durables. Or quand on les interroge, ces mêmes consommateurs déclarent que la durabilité est importante pour eux et que les pouvoirs publics devraient promouvoir la consommation durable. Selon toute vraisemblance, un dilemme social est ici à l’oeuvre. Chaque individu gagnerait à ce que nous consommions tous des produits durables, mais le prix plus élevé de ces produits l’incite à laisser cet effort aux autres. L’adoption par les pouvoirs publics de mesures visant à promouvoir la consommation durable résoudrait le dilemme social, mais les consommateurs souhaitent-ils réellement promouvoir la durabilité ? Cette étude examine l’intérêt des individus pour la consommation durable et les dilemmes que cela engendre, en s’appuyant sur une expérience d’économie comportementale appliquée à des décisions de groupe. Dans cette expérience, les participants devaient décider s’ils étaient prêts à acheter de la viande biologique ou du chocolat équitable au lieu de versions classiques (moins durables) de ces produits, et devaient effectuer les achats décidés durant une semaine. Les résultats montrent qu’un grand nombre de participants, qui n’achètent habituellement pas de produits durables, étaient prêts à s’engager à le faire. Ce contraste peut en partie s’expliquer par un phénomène de « coopération conditionnelle ». En outre, les participants paraissent insensibles à l’ampleur du gain collectif généré. Toutefois, les participants de notre expérience semblent éprouver des difficultés à obliger les autres à acheter des produits durables. Ils semblent être confrontés à un dilemme moral, dans lequel ils doivent mettre en balance la sensation de bien-être que provoque la contribution à un bien collectif et les coûts individuels plus élevés que supposent l’achat de produits durables et le fait d’obliger les autres à agir de même. Nous avons aussi constaté que la préférence des participants pour une mesure ou leur rejet de celle-ci a priori n’en disaient pas beaucoup sur leur appréciation de la mesure a posteriori. À partir des résultats de cette expérience, nous avons tiré les conclusions suivantes. Puisque les consommateurs n’agissent pas toujours conformément à leurs valeurs, la part de marché des produits durables, qui est actuellement faible, ne reflète pas correctement le soutien des consommateurs aux mesures prises par les pouvoirs publics pour promouvoir la consommation durable. Afin de stimuler la consommation de produits durables, il pourrait s’avérer utile de jouer sur la sensation de bien-être (le « chaud au coeur ») que suscite une contribution individuelle au développement durable. En outre, les pouvoirs publics pourraient s’appuyer sur la « coopération conditionnelle » qui caractérise la plupart des consommateurs, par exemple en persuadant chaque individu qu’un nombre suffisant (important) de consommateurs change aussi ses habitudes de consommation au profit de la consommation durable. Dans ce contexte, il apparaît que les consommateurs préfèrent les mesures incitatives « douces » (comme les subventions) aux règlementations restrictives, mesures « dures », même s’ils y perdent sur le plan financier. C’est le prix à payer pour le libre-choix. Toutefois, les règlementations, même sous la forme d’interdiction des versions les moins durables d’un produit, peuvent être acceptées et s’avérer plus efficaces, tant qu’elles restent à l’initiative des pouvoirs publics.

Suggested Citation

  • Kees Vringer & Herman R. J. Vollebergh & Daan van Soest & Eline van der Heijden & Frank Dietz, 2015. "Sustainable consumption dilemmas," OECD Environment Working Papers 84, OECD Publishing.
  • Handle: RePEc:oec:envaaa:84-en
    DOI: 10.1787/5js4k112t738-en
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    Cited by:

    1. Gerrit Antonides, 2017. "Sustainable Consumer Behaviour: A Collection of Empirical Studies," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 9(10), pages 1-5, September.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    conditional cooperation; consommation durable; coopération conditionnelle; household economics; sustainable consumption; économie des ménages;

    JEL classification:

    • D11 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Theory
    • D12 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Empirical Analysis

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