Can sustainability survive a cost-of-living crisis?
As household finances get tighter, we explore strategies to avoid sustainable choices only being valued by the better off
Continuing our theme of ‘value’, this week we are looking at the way this is not simply the result of trading off cost and quality is significantly influenced by social structures. In particular we are looking at the apparent trade-off that takes place between the purchase of environmentally friendly / sustainable products and their cost. Do perceptions of value mean that in conditions of financial hardship these are inevitably cast aside?
At one level it seems obvious that we will reduce purchase of sustainable choices. These goods are generally more expensive than conventional options and are perceived as such: hence consumers must be able and willing to pay a higher price in order to purchase products that are sustainable. But whilst ability to pay will constrain choices, this is not the only consideration. A range of socio-cultural factors are also at play, influencing the way we make this sort of choice.
To understand this, we first need to recognise that humans do not make consumer decisions in an isolated way but we do so in the presence of others. As such, mechanisms such as status and hierarchies have an influence, particularly in the area of consumer goods. On that basis, decision-making for people in lower socio-economic status (SES) groups will not only be shaped by absolute resources available, but also as a function of the way we all assess where we stand on the socio-economic hierarchy.
With this in mind, there is a range of ways in which lower SES status influences purchase decisions. For example, a low sense of control that comes with low subjective social status, reduces confidence that the future will turn out as hoped for. In an uncertain environment there is a logic to spending on goods for immediate reward – they have a value to them that may not be realised deferring spend. So we may forgo healthy sustainable choices which might require more upfront investment (e.g. for preparation and storage) for more immediate but perhaps less healthy and sustainable options that can be realised immediately.
Conversely, another reaction to the threat of low perceived status may be through the signalling value of high-status goods. An example of this (we mentioned last week) is the way that teenage mothers can have a very careful marshalling of resources, to purchase visibly high value baby items (such as high-end buggies) to avoid public scrutiny and negative evaluation, and as such work to secure a legitimate maternal identity.
The point is that what is ‘valued’ goes beyond simple cost quality trade-offs – the social-cultural context plays a key role in shaping perceptions of value.
Sustainability choices and perceived value
To return to the issue of sustainability, this presents a dilemma, given the products and services are generally more expensive than conventional options. Consumers must be able and willing to pay a higher price in order to engage in this sort of consumption. How is value navigated in this context?
To help answer this question, Jenny Olson and colleagues examined the socio-cultural factors involved in this sort of decision making. Their premise was that consumers react to others’ choices, with lower SES groups frequently viewed differently by others for making identical choices. Across five experiments, they found that individuals earning high incomes will be perceived as more moral for choosing more costly, ethical (versus more affordable, conventional) goods. Those in the lowest income bracket are perceived as less moral because they are seen as ‘undeserving’ of the right to make such choices – particularly if receiving government financial support.
People consider those with ample means have an obligation to provide for those in less privileged social positions by behaving pro-socially, so that when wealthy consumers engage in these behaviours, they are viewed favourably.
Low-income individuals, on the other hand, tend to be seen as more moral when they make thrifty choices. This is due to the way that resisting the urge to spend money is seen as virtuous, so choosing affordable options is seen as financially responsible. Hence the ability to make ethical choices is driven by perceptions of deservingness (i.e. the freedom of choice) which is determined primarily by earning income.
It is hard to imagine that these attitudes are not internalised by people, so that higher earning people in the population are then encouraged to engage in making discretionary donations and behaving pro-socially (meaning greater perceived value for sustainable products) whilst lower earning counterparts are encouraged to identify themselves as thrifty and careful (meaning lower perceived value for sustainable products).
Polarisation in perceived value of sustainable choices?
These mechanisms mean we are in danger of creating a situation where sustainable, and more generally ethical choices, are seen as discretionary, and are only perceived to be of value by people that have higher spending power. So even if there are lower cost sustainable options available, then these may be avoided by those on lower SES groups for fear of being judged as ‘feckless’ and irresponsible. Conversely, of course, some may seek to manage the way they are viewed by knowingly investing in sustainable options to secure a legitimate identity, in the same way it was found some teenage mothers did with high-end buggies.
We can see that value in this context comes with a great deal of baggage - value of sustainable choices is in no small part driven by social-cultural cues. This presents an important challenge as of course concern about the environment is not limited to those in higher SES groups. One might expect this to be subject to campaigns from groups seeking to facilitate access to low budget sustainable options. To date campaigning (as far as we can see) has tended to focus on availability of low cost items, as illustrated by the success of Jack Monroe who successfully pushed Asda to reinstate budget products. Whether campaigning for low-cost sustainable options would gain the same momentum, given the pressures we have outlined, is debateable.
Brands and governments can perhaps help to more effectively navigate the way in which identity, value and sustainability are entwined in this space. Part of this might be funding ways to offer low-cost sustainable products, albeit we recognise this may be a challenge and require wider investment (from governments or brands). But in addition, it may be to help people understand the way that their behaviours likely already represent a low carbon footprint versus higher SES groups. Managing identities is not necessarily always about changing behaviour but perhaps helping to reshape the identity that people have adopted.
If someone in a low SES group can understand the way their carbon footprint is low, then this could be a source of positive identity. It also means that reference points might be created, leading to people challenging and putting pressure on the disproportionate carbon footprint of consumer choices of those in higher SES groups.
Returning to the notion of value, we can see that this is a complex issue that requires a fair amount of unpacking in the context of sustainability. There are risks for brands and politicians if sustainability choices are only perceived to be of value by the well-off - as the less well-off will surely alienated and detached from these choices which are seen as poor value.
We think that work can be done to renegotiate meanings in this space, offering more inclusive ways to understand sustainability and drive a notion of shared value in a much broader way. One near term opportunity for brands and governments to support people to understand how their lifestyles are sustainable, rather than the focus always being on specific product or service choices. Handled well, it seems the cost of living crisis could mean there is a real opportunity here, renegotiating our relationship between value and sustainability
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