In this time of extreme climate crisis, it is critical that we all reduce our consumption. But should all the responsibility lie on individual consumers? Is it a policy issue for regulatory agencies to enforce from the top down? We argue that there is another, potentially more nimble and impactful option — for-profit brands.
Brands can opt out of the traditional marketing paradigm of demand maximization and instead help consumers to buy fewer products. This isn’t to say that marketers around the world should magically stop caring about profits and renounce the capitalistic system. Nor are we suggesting that everybody suddenly give up all the pleasures of consumption and join a commune operating outside the consumer culture.
Our research shows that brands and marketers can encourage and support consumers in anti-consumption while maintaining profitability. In fact, brands can extend the anti-consumption movement beyond a fringe group of hard-core hippies to help more moderate consumers reduce their consumption — by leveraging conspicuous anti-consumption.
Anti-consumption or intentional reduction of consumption includes practices such as refusing to buy, reusing, repurposing, repairing or otherwise extending the product’s life and is different from other green-consumption practices. Whereas green consumption focuses on buying sustainably made (and often more expensive) products without any major behavioral changes, anti-consumption requires meaningful lifestyle changes. For example, buying an electric vehicle or a sustainably produced jacket is green consumption while taking the bus or repairing an old jacket is anti-consumption. Although green consumption is important, reducing consumption can be much more impactful in reducing overall environmental impact.
Unfortunately, anti-consumption practices can be hard for consumers. Even though there are cost savings associated with forgoing consumption, it entails lost pleasure stemming from the purchase and use of new products. Moreover, consumption reduction can be hindered by more than just the loss of the functional benefits of the product. People also receive symbolic benefits through consumption, such as signaling one’s worth, wealth or status to others, and this is a major cause of (over) consumption.
In fact, both luxury as well as green consumption can be motivated by the desire to convey positive information (wealth or environmental friendliness). However, if one chooses to purposefully reduce consumption, there is no observable signal to communicate the environmental motive. Have you ever wondered if your friends would judge you for wearing an outfit that was worn out, or perhaps worse, out of date on the trend cycle? Or whether your neighbors would think you are too poor to afford a car if they see you riding a bus? Our studies show that these fears are well founded. Evidence shows that people indeed assume that others’ anti-consumption choices stem from financial motives rather than concern for the environment.
But consider Jane Fonda’s red coat — we all know she can buy more clothes if she desires, but when we see her red coat, we know it represents her pledge to never buy clothing again. Her motive is clear because she has communicated it in widely publicized interviews, a platform that just isn’t an option for regular consumers.
So, can brands restore some of these symbolic benefits to the anti-consumer? Our research suggests that marketers can reduce the symbolic penalty faced by anti-consumers by providing conspicuous anti-consumption signals. A brand can provide a visible means (such as a sticker, a patch or hashtag) that allows consumers to signal environmental motivations for reduced consumption.
Patagonia, for example, will repair your jacket, but also affixes a patch indicating that it is “Worn Wear.” It has created marketing campaigns so that not only do we know we can and should repair our Patagonia jackets, but if we see a patch on someone else’s jacket, we know they have done something “good” for the planet.
The outdoor supply retailer REI closes all stores on Black Friday and implores consumers to “opt outside” by refraining from consumption and getting outdoors instead. A large communication campaign by REI has codified rich cultural meaning into the hashtag “#OptOutside” while establishing it as a crusader against overconsumption. When we use this hashtag on Instagram, our anti-consumption practices and the associated environmental motives become apparent to everyone. Our research shows that such conspicuous anti-consumption signals do confer status on the anti-consumer and, importantly, also bolster perceptions of the brand in the eyes of observers.
Some consumers are truly, passionately dedicated to environmentalism through anti-consumption and might not need these extrinsic rewards. But that sliver of the population is very small, and the change that we need at this point is massive. The deep-seated status motivation is more universal to humans. Therefore, signaling status by clarifying one’s environmental motives for anti-consumption can be a powerful and scalable lever to encourage anti-consumption. Conspicuous anti-consumption signals can motivate a large number of moderate consumers and the brands that provide these signals to consumers are perceived more positively in the marketplace. Therefore, there are opportunities for marketers and brands to make a positive environmental impact on a large scale.
Marketing, with its demand-creation paradigm, has been a major contributor to the climate crisis. Our research suggests that marketers can pivot to being part of the solution. But is this strategy antithetical to the profit motive and do consumers reward brands for such efforts? There is a clear business case for leveraging conspicuous anti-consumption to build a differentiated brand meaning. That differentiated meaning then translates into a strong resonant brand allowing profitability through bigger market share and price premiums while still reducing category-level consumption. It will depend on whether these brands can also change operations to match the anti-consumption messaging in order to be perceived as authentic and resist consumer skepticism of these counterintuitive practices. More than an advertising campaign, such actions can create a culture that values buying durable, well-made products that last a long time from brands that take the responsibility of being custodians of the natural resources they use — and buying less of them.