With an ever-increasing focus on environmental sustainability, more and more of us are changing how — and what — we consume. We’re encouraged to recycle; charges on plastic mean we take our own shopping bags to the supermarket; and market research suggests that campaigns against fast fashion have been partly responsible for a rising interest in second-hand clothing. But how do these kinds of behaviours relate to our well-being? New research in Young Consumers suggests that buying green may not be the way to personal bliss, and that instead we should be focused on curbing our materialistic urges altogether.
To understand how our consumer choices affect our well-being, Sabrina Helm at the University of Arizona and her team looked at the “culturally entrenched materialistic values” that influence millennials. The researchers were interested in two specific kinds of behaviour: “green buying”, which refers to buying products that limit impact on the environment, and reduced consumption, which involves repairing or reusing things rather than buying replacements.
The team started with data from a longitudinal research program in which almost 1,000 college students completed online surveys, initially during their first year, aged 18 to 21, and subsequently three and five years later. The students completed scales measuring their level of materialism, and how often they engaged in proactive financial behaviours such as saving. The team also constructed a 7-item scale to measure proactive environmental behaviours, including both green buying — such as purchasing items made from recycled materials — and reduced consumption behaviours. Personal well-being, life satisfaction, financial satisfaction and psychological distress were also measured.
Unsurprisingly, the results showed that the more materialistic a person was, the less likely they were to engage in reduced consumption. But they were still likely to engage in green buying — perhaps because it still involved obtaining new items.
“There is evidence that there are ‘green materialists,'” says Helm. “If you are able to buy environmentally friendly products, you can still live your materialist values. You’re acquiring new things, and that fits into the mainstream consumption pattern in our consumer culture.”
These materialists should think twice, however: those with lower levels of consumption also reported higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress, but green buying had no link to well-being at all.
“We thought it might satisfy people that they participated in being more environmentally conscious through green buying patterns, but it doesn’t seem to be that way,” Helm said. “Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we don’t see that with green consumption.”
It’s important to note that the data gleaned from the research was not causal, but merely correlational. People with higher levels of materialism may be less happy for other reasons, or happy people may be more likely to engage in reduced consumption, not the other way around. And it’s also possible that those with high levels of materialism are unlikely to be made any happier by reducing their consumption — after all, the factors influencing that materialism are complex and often deeply embedded in the social and cultural fabric of our lives, and undoing these desires may be slightly less straightforward than we might hope.
Changes in consumer habits are obviously not going to be the tipping point when it comes to climate change — as we probably all know by now, 71% of global emissions are caused by just 100 companies. So whilst Helm notes that reduced consumption is “more important from a sustainability perspective,” how much single use plastic we purchase on a daily basis is unlikely to make a significant impact.
But how we feel about these issues will undoubtedly develop as the clock ticks on climate change: understanding how to navigate our role in environmental issues is only going to get more pressing.