Many of us know that we should be better consumers. Buy less. Buy ethical. And of course, buy environmentally-friendly products. The trouble is, most of us aren’t doing this, even though it could benefit us financially as well as being the right thing to do by the planet.

Associate Professor Martin Grimmer of the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania, is an expert in consumer behaviour, and his latest research is looking at pro-environmental and ethical consumption.

“I’m interested in why consumers act in the way they do, and what it is that encourages consumers to purchase environmentally-friendly products.”

Associate Professor Grimmer said most surveys will show that about 30 per cent of people intend to use environmentally-friendly products. 

There are a lot of people who intend to purchase environmentally-friendly products but don’t do it. My research has been involved in trying to explore that disconnection between intention and behaviour.

 “This research is important because we are spending and consuming beyond our own means, but also beyond what the planet can actually sustain.”

Each individual Australian produces about a tonne of waste over a year. It’s got to go somewhere, and eventually we’re going to run out of places for it to go.

Associate Professor Grimmer’s upcoming research project will ask consumers to track their carbon footprint, and will also gauge their attitudes towards various aspects of ethical and environmentally-friendly consumption behaviour.

“We can then see if tracking that carbon foot-printing makes a difference to the household’s energy consumption.

The aim of the research is to help participants become better-informed consumers. The results will also provide information to governments to inform policy decisions. There are two reasons why informed consumers are important.

  1. 1.   On an individual level, Australians owe about $130 to every $100 they earn.
  2. On a broader level, the average Australian household wastes about $1300 a year in goods and services they purchase and don’t use.

So why aren’t we shopping ethically?

“If you present consumers with information about real companies, consumers overwhelmingly prefer companies that put real effort into being environmentally-friendly or ethical.

“But the extent to which they prefer that company changes dramatically according to price

As soon as the product becomes expensive, it reaches what we call an ethical tipping point. People will go to a cheaper product, even if it’s less environmentally-friendly.

“Often the reasons people don’t act in an environmentally-friendly way with purchasing products are often very ordinary; to do with convenience, access, and the amount of time they have. Or they may not actually know what an environmentally-friendly product is.

“Changing the messages has an impact too. If you emphasise the personal benefit as well as the broader environmental benefit, that also tends to make a difference in people’s attitudes and habits.”

What can we do to reduce our environmental impact? According to Associate Professor Grimmer, you don’t have to drastically change your life, you just have to be a little bit more aware.

You need to think about:

  1. The energy ratings of the appliances you use; 
  2. How you source your power;
  3. What sort of car you drive, and where you live in relation to where you travel to;
  4. How you heat and cool your house; and 
  5. If you are able to purchase products that are produced locally, which will reduce the carbon output from your consumption.   

“If through this research we’re able to effect a household to reduce their carbon emissions by just half of a percent, that’s about 1.9 million metric tonnes of carbon across all Australians. In essence, all the carbon for about 115,000 Australians.

If we can even make a tiny difference like that we can have quite a big impact on the amount of carbon emissions produced in our country.

Associate Professor Grimmer said there are also benefits for companies and businesses in being aware of what consumers respond to.

“If we’re able to demonstrate, which we have, that consumers overwhelmingly prefer to buy products from companies that have a good environmental record and act ethically, that becomes a competitive advantage. 

The overall beneficiary of the outcome of this research is hopefully the planet, as well as individual consumers.

“We hope to be able to provide the beginnings of a mechanism to assist governments in constructing policy that will produce some sort of impact on climate change.”

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About Dr Martin Grimmer

Associate Professor Martin Grimmer is the Deputy Dean of the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics (TSBE).

View Dr Martin Grimmer's full researcher profile