Shopping isn’t just a transactional experience driven by necessity, as decades of research into consumer behavior – these days, increasingly sophisticated and tech-driven research – has demonstrated.
We buy clothes because they’re an expression of identity. We buy cars because they telegraph status. We buy food because it nourishes us, but also because of cultural norms or in response to successful marketing and advertising, and we buy what we think are environmentally friendly products because it is a reflection of our values.
Yet it’s a mistake to think that “buying green” as opposed to buying less makes people feel better, at least among young shoppers in a coveted demographic that companies seek to engage.
That’s according to University of Arizona researcher Sabrina Helm, who followed the consumer behavior of nearly 1,000 shoppers from their first year in college, when they were between 18 and 21 years old, through five years ending when they were 23 to 26 years old.
What Helm found is that “green materialism” is still materialism, and people still can’t buy happiness.
“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 in a press release. “Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we don’t see that with green consumption.”
Helm and her team learned this from the survey responses collected across the study years, which evaluated both the personal preferences and the purchase patterns. Study participants who described themselves as having fewer materialistic values were more likely to reduce their overall consumption, and it’s the lower consumption that’s linked to personal well-being and lower psychological distress.
Helm says her study, published in the journal Young Consumers, has real sustainability implications in the face of climate change because it gets at the heart of personal decisions about products that drive use of the planet’s finite resources. It also suggests there are few shortcuts in choosing a “green” alternative yet still wanting to have it all; some sustainable-shopping choices may indeed be better for the planet but maybe not its people.
“There is evidence that there are ‘green materialists,'” said Helm, an associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at University of Arizona. “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 our mainstream consumption pattern in our consumer culture, whereas reduced consumption is more novel and probably more important from a sustainability perspective.”
Helm’s study also seeks to understand how “proactive financial behaviors” like saving money and sticking to a budget are linked with materialism. She found the green-friendly consumers who were already materialistic were less likely to make these proactive choices, which were positively linked with personal well-being, life satisfaction and lower psychological distress.
“The key is to reduce consumption and not just buy green stuff. Having less and buying less can actually make us more satisfied and happier,” Helm said.