Why is consumer behavior important

Environmental awareness, consumer behavior and sustainable consumption

Climate change and the summer drought, phasing out coal, Fridays for Future: environmental issues have been very publicly present in recent years. The topic of environmental and climate protection has gained in importance, as the studies on environmental awareness carried out regularly by the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) show. Most people now regard environmental and climate protection as a very important challenge - on a par with issues such as education and social justice.

This can also be seen in everyday life. For example, the demand for organic products and green electricity has increased, and car sharing is also being used increasingly.

Great need for action in consumption

Despite the pronounced environmental awareness, there is a great need for action in private consumption.

No matter what products we buy, our consumption has consequences for the environment. The exact consequences are very different. But overall, our consumer behavior will be a stress test for the environment. Both Germany and many other regions around the world are affected. Because the manufacture of many products is organized globally. Less and less of what we consume in Germany is produced in Germany. We are importing more and more, and at the same time Germany is exporting more and more goods abroad.

Our consumption behavior has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, for example. The annual emissions per capita in Germany are 11.61 tons of CO2-Equivalents. This makes them almost twice as high as the global average.

Nutrition accounts for 15 percent of this, and almost 40 percent is what is known as "other consumption", which includes clothing and household appliances, but also leisure activities.

There are also other environmental impacts. For example, land is required for consumption, for example for growing food and feed, but also for wood production. Most of this area is abroad.

A lot of water is also used in the manufacture of consumer goods, for example for food and textiles. While each person uses an average of 123 liters of drinking water per day, a further 3,900 liters per day are used for consumer goods (as of 2016). This indirectly used water is called virtual water.

Opposing developments

Since 2000, greenhouse gas emissions from consumption by private households have decreased overall. The market share of environmentally friendly products has increased significantly. While it was 3.6 percent in 2012, it was 8.3 percent in 2017.

But there are also opposing effects. For example, energy-efficient products are becoming increasingly widespread overall. But the improvements are partially diminished by the fact that more is consumed. This phenomenon is known as the "rebound effect". Smartphones, for example, are becoming more widespread. And there are differences in the products. In the case of televisions, the proportion of particularly energy-efficient devices has fallen again for several years.

Overall, more and more households have more and more goods. The number of one- and two-person households is increasing, as is the level of household equipment.

Household consumption expenditure in Germany rose by 14 percent from 2014 to 2019 alone. Households with higher incomes spend more on consumption. This is accompanied by higher energy consumption and more environmental resources are used.

The growth is particularly strong in information and communication technologies (ICT). A number of new products have come onto the market here in the past few decades and they have spread quickly. These include, for example, cell phones, flat screen televisions, laptops and game consoles.

How are consumption, the environment and the climate related?

Private consumption has a predominantly indirect effect on the environment. This means that the effects are caused during the manufacture and transport of the goods, not during the actual use. One also speaks of the so-called energy content or CO2-Content of consumer goods. This also includes the energy that is used abroad for goods imported into Germany.

In order to assess the effects of the consumption of certain products in detail, their entire life cycle must be considered. This includes the extraction of raw materials, production, distribution, use in private households as well as disposal and recycling.

The negative effects of consumption are manifold, spread over the entire supply chain of products and occur in different regions, as the following examples show:

  • Textiles: The cultivation of conventional cotton requires large amounts of water for irrigation. The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to half its original size due to the demand for water from cotton plantations. When it comes to the manufacture of textiles, the working conditions in certain countries are often very poor. In Bangladesh, for example, wages are often extremely low and factory safety is poor.
  • Palm oil: For the cultivation of oil palms, which grow exclusively in tropical climates, tropical rainforests are cut down, and slash and burn is also common. The destruction of forests threatens many species, including orangutans. Working conditions are often poor on the palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in many foods and cosmetics, among other things.
  • ICT products: Smartphones, for example, contain precious and special metals in addition to harmful substances. The mining of raw materials is associated with considerable environmental pollution. Some are won under dangerous and inhumane conditions, for example in the DR Congo.
  • Food from intensive agriculture: About half of the area in Germany is used for agriculture. The intensive use of land is associated with effects on soil, water, biological diversity and the climate, among other things. The intensive fertilization pollutes the groundwater and leads to an oversupply of rivers and lakes with nutrients. Monotonous agricultural landscapes and the use of pesticides contribute to the loss of biodiversity.

From knowledge to action

Almost all respondents find man-made environmental problems such as deforestation or plastic in the oceans outrageous, according to the aforementioned study on environmental awareness. The respondents also agree that each and every individual bears responsibility for ensuring that we will leave behind an environment worth living in for future generations.

But there are significant deviations in actual behavior. Many claim to buy organic food or other products with environmental seals such as the Blue Angel. However, the behavior is nowhere near as environmentally friendly as the settings.

There are many reasons for this difference between environmental awareness and environmental action. Sustainability orientations are often in conflict with other personal desires - long-distance travel, being mobile with your own car, a house in the country or simply comfort - which are difficult to reconcile with sustainable behavior.

Many people also find it difficult to give up habits.

Positive approaches are also often inhibited by the feeling that there is little that can be achieved on their own. Some people also feel that others have to do something first before they can act themselves.

Obstacles and challenges

One explanation of consumer behavior says that people act in an environmentally conscious way when they have to do without a little - or when this causes little costs or inconvenience. This is known as the "low-cost hypothesis".

Another explanation is that consumers are often confronted with contradicting incentives to act - they are then stuck in a dilemma. Not only do they have to reconcile different interests, they often have insufficient or contradicting information. One example is the choice between several different types of coffee or chocolate. They cost different amounts, there are different details about their origin and different product seals on the packaging, we actually know about some problems during production, and - often particularly important - they taste different of course. What should you do if you can't find a sustainability seal on a particularly appealing package in a hurry?

When weighing up consumption decisions, there are therefore various "traps". For example when shopping: A certain product has advantages for the buyer, while the disadvantages are distributed to other people. Or the disadvantages only become noticeable after a delay - or are only noticeable elsewhere.

Inadequate risk assessment can also contribute to people failing to behave sustainably against their better judgment: If environmental and climate problems are not easily grasped by the senses, people tend to underestimate them. For example, while garbage can be perceived on the street, many other environmental problems are less tangible - such as the effects of climate change.

How can consumers be won over to sustainable consumption?

Sustainability communication aims to strengthen sustainable value orientations and attitudes, promote sustainable behavior and eliminate information deficits. This also includes breaking down prejudices such as "sustainable consumption is expensive" or "recycled paper is gray".

For professional communication measures, information and media are designed specifically for the target group. This means that the characteristics and lifestyles of the groups addressed are taken into account and the communication is prepared in such a way that it is perceived as appealing.

When addressing young people in particular, it is important to consider possible special needs and aesthetic preferences. This also includes an appropriate language.

Sustainable consumption and social change

There are diverse efforts by various actors to take action against the harmful consequences of consumption and to promote sustainable consumption. Environmental protection organizations use campaigns to draw attention to problematic aspects over and over again.

The federal government also wants to promote sustainable consumption. In 2016, the then federal government created the National Program for Sustainable Consumption, which has been continued ever since.

Sustainable consumption is therefore a central field of action for sustainable development. It should make a contribution to bringing our lifestyle in line with sustainable ecological and economic development:

"Sustainable consumption means consuming in such a way that the satisfaction of the needs of present and future generations is not endangered while observing the earth's load limits."

Sustainable consumption is understood as a task for society as a whole. Everyone is responsible: politics and administration, trade, industry and each and every individual.

As a rule, supply and demand are mutually dependent. Therefore, politics aims on the one hand to make the offer more sustainable with many regulations. On the other hand, the involvement of consumers is also necessary. Politicians want to promote this too.

The program names a number of courses of action aimed at consumers. These include:

  • Education: imparting knowledge about ecological, economic and social effects of consumer behavior
  • Consumer information: Practical information so that sustainable consumption becomes more understandable
  • Product labels: Further development of the labeling of products with trustworthy labels

What does a supply chain law bring?

One possible measure to make the offer more sustainable and transparent is a so-called supply chain or due diligence law.

Such a law can regulate how companies should ensure that environmental protection, labor rights and human rights are observed in the manufacture of their products. It is primarily about suppliers who are based in various countries around the world for many products. Because companies in Germany and Europe have supply chains all over the world.

In the coalition agreement of 2018, the federal government provided for the possibility of such a law. It plans that such a law will be passed in the 19th legislative period, i.e. until the federal election in autumn 2021. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs have jointly developed proposals for a supply chain law (status 9 / 2020).

In 2020, a broad alliance of civil society organizations also called for legal regulations. The "Initiative Supply Chain Act" advertised it in a public campaign. According to a representative survey commissioned by the initiative, three quarters of citizens in Germany support a supply chain law (as of 9/2020).

The EU Commission is also preparing corresponding regulations so that European companies can work under the same competitive conditions in the future.

Sustainable consumption in everyday life

One of the best-known tools for more sustainable consumption are various seals and certification marks for products. Seals are simple, recognizable and convey a clear message - they make it easier for consumers to make a decision. One of the oldest and most successful is the state eco-label "Blue Angel". The federal government's environmental label is awarded to products that are particularly environmentally, health and consumer-friendly.

Other well-known symbols are the "Bio" and the "FairTrade" seals, with which ecologically produced or fairly traded goods are awarded. There are numerous other labels - the federal government's portal www.siegelklarheit.de offers a good overview.

Related Links

Federal Environment Agency: Consumption and Products
https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/daten/private-haushalte-konsum/konsum-produkte

Federal Environment Agency: environmental tips for everyday life
https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/umwelttipps-fuer-den-alltag

Federal Environment Agency: Environmental awareness and behavior
https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/daten/private-haushalte-konsum/umweltbewusstsein-umweltlösungen

Federal Government: National Program for Sustainable Consumption
https://www.bmu.de/fileadmin/Daten_BMU/Pools/Broschueren/nachhaltiger_konsum_broschuere_bf.pdf

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