In his thesis, Sustainable Consumption and Marketing, assistant professor in marketing Ynte van Dam argues that businesses must appeal to customers important short term motives if they want to achieve beneficial long term targets.
“In practical terms, you could encourage sustainable consumption by putting negative labels on less sustainable products,” he said.
Ynte van Dam’s research into sustainable consumption and marketing earned him a PhD by Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He described negative labelling is a good way of persuading consumers to make more sustainable choices.
‘This is not fair-trade produced’ on a pack of cacao works better than the positive message ‘This is a fair trade product’.
“By giving the least sustainable alternative a negative label, you can shift consumer preference to a more sustainable product.”
His conclusions also imply that when companies, organisations and government bodies claim that consumers should demand more sustainable products, this is actually the pot calling the kettle black.
Van Dam said: “These companies are guilty of the very thing of which they are accusing consumers.
“Companies are obliged to state the level of sustainability clearly on all sustainable products, and preferably stop producing non-sustainable products altogether.
“If companies are not prepared to jeopardise their profits by doing this, they have no right to claim that they support sustainability. This is quite simply window dressing.”
His conclusions were arrived at by using three computer based experiments in which ethical product information was framed in different ways.
Since the early 1970s, marketing literature has “shown awareness of the need to respond to the impending environmental and social crises.”
“[However] apparently it is still rational for a firm to focus on profit maximization rather than focusing on the goals of economic sustainability, social sustainability, ecological sustainability, and increased supply.“
When examining consumer behavior Van Dam acknowledged that, in principle, all consumers want a sustainable future. However, while shopping they often make other choices based on price or convenience.
Van Dam said: “This is because people make choices at a concrete level.
“The mental image at this low construal level is concrete, imminent and contextual. You could see it as thinking about a tree, whereby the image you create includes leaves, branches and bark.
“‘Sustainably produced’ is an abstract concept, more like thinking about a forest. You don’t see the branches and leaves, but you might get the urge to go for a walk in the woods.”
In what Van Dam describes as a ‘higher construal level’ customers think in terms of ideal images.
“Thinking at this high level of abstraction, you judge whether something is attractive or not. You will aspire to the things that you find attractive.
“At a concrete level, you are more likely to judge in terms of feasible or not feasible, and this is what determines your behaviour. So you can change people’s behaviour and make them behave more sustainably by making them think at a more concrete level.”
Source: Wageningen University Publication
"Sustainable Consumption and Marketing"
Author: Ynte van Dam