Consumers need carrots, not sticks, to make 'green' choices

December 12, 2005

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.
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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:

Professor Tim Jackson, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, on 07969 132 946 (mobile) or 01483-689072 (office); Email t.jackson@surrey.ac.uk

Or Alexandra Saxon, Annika Howard or William Godwin at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119/413122

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. The research project 'Towards a 'Social Psychology' of Sustainable Consumption' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Tim Jackson is Professor at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey.

2. Methodology: The findings are based on a review of the extensive research literature on consumption, consumer behaviour and behavioural change. The aim was to explore the conceptual foundations for a view of human behaviour which is consistent with the goal of sustainable consumption and to examine the extent to which this model could inform policy.

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £123million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'Good'.

Economic & Social Research Council

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