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When being green is socially awkward

Date:15 April 2019
Jan Willem Bolderdijk is an associate professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen
Jan Willem Bolderdijk is an associate professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen

Climate change, one of the grand issues facing society today, is at its root a behavioural problem. We know what to do (e.g., drastically reduce carbon emissions) and have the tools to accomplish it (e.g., energy-neutral technologies, radical consumer policies). However, as long as individual consumers fail to support or adopt such changes, these issues will remain unsolved. Jan Willem Bolderdijk, researcher within FEB’s signature area Markets and Sustainability, studies the ‘rough edges’ of sustainable behaviour. Why is it so difficult to follow through on one’s sustainable principles?

Ultimately, we all want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror, Bolderdijk says. ‘For many people this means living sustainably and occasionally caring about the future. I am no different. This usually works fine, as long as you’re not confronted with similar-minded people who make better choices than you in the same situation. It is this social friction that I find extremely fascinating.’

Unable to radically change behaviour

‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to conclude that our climate will continue to change if we don’t change the way we treat our natural environment. At the same time, as a consumer, I regularly do things that are not sustainable at all. Like that long-distance holiday flight last year. It was a wonderful trip, but it also made me feel uncomfortable. I always tell myself that this was definitely my last, but whether I can stick to this intention remains doubtful, to be honest. So I keep asking myself: why am I unable to radically change my behaviour?’

Nagging unease

This nagging unease inspires Bolderdijk’s research at the intersection of social psychology and marketing. ‘I’ve noticed that I find it rather awkward sometimes to tell others about my sustainable intentions. That fascinates me. Is it just me, or do more people feel bothered in doing so?

Sustainable behaviour soon leads to unease in social relationships, says Bolderdijk. ‘You and I will probably agree on something harmless, such as recycling batteries, but when I refuse to eat meat and tell you that I find the treatment of pigs unethical, we might soon end up in opposite corners - particularly if you do eat meat. Research tells us that, in such situations, meat eaters tend to believe that the other person sees them as an immoral, anti-social person. That anticipated judgment creates social friction.’

Precautionary silence

Conversely, Bolderdijk found that this sense of unease can also influence those who seek to lead the way in sustainable intentions. ‘Prevailing academic opinion used to be very cynical about this: those who engage in moral behaviour want to shout it from the rooftops, for we only do so if it benefits our reputation. People who donate a lot of money primarily do so to show others how wealthy and altruistic they are. My research has revealed a new effect: sometimes the most socially-conscious people actually remain silent to avoid social friction with their surroundings. We discovered, for instance, that some vegetarians refrain from voicing their meat-free preferences to avoid unpleasant discussions.’

Taboo on ‘what is good’

How does this social unease influence the market shares of green products? Could a taboo on ‘what is good’ help to explain why it is so difficult for many sustainable products and behaviours to become mainstream? ‘Many people know that air travel and concern about climate change don’t go together very well. To avoid social friction, however, the subject of flying less is not always discussed. The prevailing view seems to be: everyone is flying, everyone is OK with that, so I guess I'll fly too. This causes an interaction: the norm persists because all that people see in their surroundings are other people who keep doing the same things. It used to be the same for meat consumption, although this has been gradually changing in recent years. A great taboo still rests on more fundamental issues, however, such as slowing down population growth.

Tony Chocolonely

How can we use our knowledge about social friction to promote sustainable behaviour? ‘Tony Chocolonely chocolate is a classic example of a successful moral innovation. This chocolate not only has the reputation of being an ethically responsible product, it is also known for its better taste. Using taste as an argument makes it easy to legitimize your choice for Tony Chocolonely and avoid an implicit moral judgment of those who prefer different brands. It may be easier to sell sustainable products that offer consumers a safe, non-moral excuse to justify their choice.’

Perfect place

‘The Faculty of Economics and Business is the perfect place to study this link between micro-behaviour and market-level outcomes. Within the Markets and Sustainability area, we take a cross-disciplinary, multi-method approach to understand sustainable consumer choices. For example, in addition to using controlled lab studies, I’m getting more and more interested in analysing naturally occurring datasets, such as shares and likes of ‘green’ social media content.’