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School of Business and Management

Focus on continuity and context to drive sustainable consumer behaviour in the long-term

Someone using a zero waste shop to buy lentils
A photo of Sayed Elhousy

Dr Sayed Elhoushy

Programme Director for MSc International Marketing and Business Strategies; Lecturer in Marketing; Member of MINDS

In collaboration with

A review of research on sustainable consumer behaviour focuses on maintaining greener choices, rather than the initial motivation to try something new, and gives new ideas on how marketing could help meet this vital challenge.

“I’m interested in how we can motivate, facilitate and maintain sustainable consumer behaviours at scale – to make sure they go viral. This could include food waste, organic food or composting,” says Dr Sayed Elhoushy, Lecturer in Marketing at the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London.

“Each piece of research I work on is triggered by something I do,” he continues. “I have two children and with my six-year-old, I’ve tried using incentives. For example, I tell him that I will look in our recycling bin and if it’s not contaminated at the end of the week, then I’ll give him something, like a new toy. And he’s very motivated in the first couple of hours, but after a week, he’s forgotten about it.”

“We see the same in marketing research – people show motivation to do something, but they do not follow through with their actions. Campaigns like ‘Love food, hate waste’ were amazing in raising awareness, but what next? Do people continue behaving sustainably over time?”

Examining the evidence

Dr Elhoushy wanted to explore this gap between initiation and continuation of sustainable consumer behaviours. Working with Professor Soocheong (Shawn) Jang from Purdue University, Indiana, USA, he carried out a review of research on the topic.

Their paper ‘How to maintain sustainable consumer behaviours: A systematic review and future research agenda’ was recently published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies. It brings together research on a variety of sustainable behaviours, including buying organic food, sustainable transport and green tourism.

“A key finding for me is that we need to move our focus from individual behaviours to groups of behaviours. For example, we could just look at the decision to buy an electric or petrol car, but maybe we should also look at a decision to buy a car or join a car sharing scheme. And what if the person joining the car sharing scheme is swapping from using a bicycle? We need to look at the wider picture.

“Another important finding is that we need to shift the focus from the individual to the journey. Instead of asking what you do with food waste in your household now, we might start with your childhood and how your grandmother handled food waste, then go on to look at how this has changed and what you will pass on to the next generation.

“The marketing challenge for both businesses and policymakers is not only to motivate sustainable behaviours, but to ensure customers continue behaving sustainably over time. Focusing on long term behaviour is good from a business perspective and it’s good from an environmental perspective.”

Testing in the real world

Dr Elhoushy says the review gives some direction to businesses and organisations that want to drive long-term sustainable consumer behaviour, but it also gives an important starting point for more research in this area.

In a new study, Dr Elhoushy is hoping to apply some of what he has learned about context and continuity in the real world. In collaboration with Tower Hamlets Council, he is trialling composting for residents living in flats.

He explains: “Over the last two months I have interviewed many residents who have tried to plant or use wormeries on their balconies, but they have stopped because of the limited space, or the smell, or because it attracts rats. They are motivated, but the context makes it difficult.”

The trial will compare the use of small, individual composing bins with a large machine that can transform green waste into compost in 24 hours and serves a whole block of flats.

Social and environmental values

More broadly, Dr Elhoushy says we need to foster new ‘domains of value’. He explains: “Marketing focuses on how we can motivate you from a self-perspective, for example saying organic food may be good for your health. We need to cultivate the social and environmental aspects, for example organic food is good for the environment. ‘What’s in it for me’ may change tomorrow, but ‘what’s in it for society’ is more sustainable.”

He adds: “People have so many choices. If we are not able to cultivate these values, then we won't be able to make positive changes.”

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