The large body of research investigating the discrepancy between consumers' progressive environmental attitudes in polls, and their actual purchase behavior, has provided inconsistent results.
This paper complements existing research using an 'interception' of consumers at the shopping aisle, thus using more objective behavioral data. Our analysis indicates a neglectable impact of attitude on intention. Purchase intention, in turn, was found a significant determinant of actual purchase behavior, although the overall impact on the likelihood of choosing a sustainable product is limited.
The findings indicate that even positively inclined consumers do not change their purchase behavior owing mainly to economic barriers.
The rapid loss of biodiversity, increasing resource scarcity and intensifying climate change are threatening the life-support systems of the earth (IPBES, 2019). A United Nations report highlighted consumption patterns of an ever-growing world population as one of the key reasons for these global challenges (UN, 2015). One of the main priorities of environmental movements and policies has therefore been an education campaign aimed at shifting consumer preferences towards more sustainable resource use. As the UN Sustainable Development Goals states, consumers can work towards the goal of sustainable consumption by "reducing [their] waste[,] being thoughtful about what [they] buy and choosing a sustainable option whenever possible" (UN, 2016). Indeed, numerous polls report that consumers not only prefer sustainable products but are willing to pay more for them, including 73% of millennials (Curtin, 2018) and 66% of global respondents (Nielsen, 2015). Similar numbers are reported in many other surveys (CGS, 2019; Cohen, 2018; Toluna, 2019). Yet, these stated responses to pollsters hardly translate to actual buying behavior (Prothero et al., 2011). As overall consumption keeps increasing, the market share of sustainable products remains negligible (Olson, 2013; Terlau & Hirsch, 2015). The gap between stated and actual purchase behavior regarding sustainable goods attracted researchers trying to understand consumers' motivation for purchasing green products by a variety of factors, such as socio-demographic drivers, cultural values or by using psychological models (Barbarossa & De Pelsmacker, 2016; Nguyen, Lobo, & Greenland, 2017; Peattie & Charter, 2003). Yet, the results were often inconclusive and contradictory, often depending on the methodology and data input (M. J. Carrington, Zwick, & Neville, 2016).
This paper addresses the gap from two angles:
- How can the 'say-do' gap be characterized when using observed product choices? We model the discrepancy between stated attitudes and actual purchase behavior of consumers for environmentally friendly household goods based on the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB). The empirical data (n = 220) was gathered through novel in-store observations of purchase behavior with subsequent consumer surveys of the same individuals in three supermarkets around Boston, Massachusetts.
- What are the main purchase barriers for sustainable household goods? In order to overcome the gap, we are looking for product-specific attributes that stop consumers from buying sustainable products despite potentially positive attitudes and purchase intentions.
Keywords: sustainable consumption, real product choice, intention-behavior-gap, theory of planned behavior