Most of us want to scrap the throwaway culture - but here's why we need more help to make the world greener

18 December 2019

Reducing consumption is vital if we are to help soften our impact on the environment

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But our research suggests that ‘going green’ is generally considered an expensive activity. Last year, when we asked what prevented people from reducing the environmental impact of their home, a lack of funds was a key reason for many.

This year we asked about what people thought of moving towards a circular economy. This is one that seeks to extend the use of products through reducing resource use and waste, maintaining what we have manufactured for longer, then returning it to the production process. While businesses and regulators will play a big role, so to, will consumers.

So, how do people feel about compromising their consumption in favour of a greener lifestyle?

Many already agree that we need to do our part for the sake of the planet and are recycling and reusing items when they can. Yet we also recognise the need for help to coordinate efforts and prioritise change if contributions are going to have the intended, large-scale impact.

Making it easy

As consumers, we recognise the need to reduce consumption. Consequently, the majority of us say we are prepared to change how we purchase and dispose of items in the coming years.

If only it were so simple.

While almost everyone recycles to some degree, there are still day-to-day challenges. Almost 40% say they throw away between three to five plastic items every single day and many often aren’t sure what can and can’t go into the recycling bin.

This isn’t necessarily surprising given that packaging is often made of many different parts, which are not all recyclable. With so much plastic waste to dispose of, such confusion is not helpful.

And yet, many people are happy to try. Around 90% of us say we would recycle if doing so meant only a short walk to our door or down the road, compared to the 54% who said they would do so if it required a 10-minute drive.

But regardless of whether recycling was at their door, down the road or required a car, many said that a financial incentive wouldn’t change their activity. Essentially, they say, this is not needed to encourage recycling.

Overcoming inconvenience and coordinating actions seem to be among the biggest hurdles.

But there is a common consensus that companies could do more to help us reuse and recycle. Some 60% of us already anticipate repairing items more frequently over the next three years instead of replacing them.

But many of the mechanisms which could enable this, such as accessing repair services or being able to replace individual elements within products, rely on backing from manufacturers and retailers. Should they fail to adapt their operations to enable repairing, 64% of us expect them to experience some consumer backlash.

Having simple options that make economic sense

Another challenge in the move to a circular economy is to make greener activities affordable. Repairing broken goods should help steer us away from the throwaway culture we have developed, but the choice to do so must make some economic sense.

More than half of Europeans say they would choose to fix the likes of a broken fridge over immediately purchasing a new one, if the repair costs were no more than 30% of the replacement. Ensuring repair activities are financially viable could encourage more of a ‘repair-over-replace’ culture.

When shopping for homewares, such as a washing machine or couch, it’s not necessarily surprising that many of us place high importance upon getting a good price over whether it could be repaired if it happens to break. Balancing the quality of goods with their relative price can be challenging.

Cheaper items may not last as long but might suit your needs. Production of more expensive items may or may not have a large impact on the environment. Almost everything comes wrapped in plastic. And information on these topics can be hard to find.

Consumption decisions have many elements, adding the environment makes them even more complex. But despite this, we do see many people trying to make greener choices where options exist. 

Growing a green society

Despite becoming more aware of what steps are needed, sustainability remains a big challenge. Two areas where individual consumers can make an impact is in their attitudes towards acquiring goods and disposing of those no longer needed.

What we find is that we are both pushing for change and asking for help to coordinate these efforts. But while it is relatively easy to call for radical behavioural change, it’s less easy to accomplish. As consumers, we know we are a substantial part of the sustainability puzzle – but can’t complete the picture alone.

Jessica Exton is a behavioural scientist at ING