Are responsible consumers ‘too perfect’?

With the US planning to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, the imminence and importance of all challenges related to the environment’s conservation and the overall ecology are back at the center of attention. Meanwhile, consumers are ever more conscious of their role. Whether it is as lever for political and economic pressure (boycott and buycott), or simply in their consumptions choices (giving importance to social and environment factors), they are continually called upon by the different actors to take part in this ecological transition.

While some seem ready to take part, others are much less cooperative in making these «responsible» consumption behaviors theirs. For years now, researchers focusing on responsible consumption have been striving to better understand why there are such discrepancies between understanding the issue, good intentions and actual behaviors. Gilles Séré de Lanauze and Jeanne Lallement have explored social representations related to the responsible consumer (RC) and their influence on the decision to adopt a given consumption behavior. With a qualitative study based on a comprehensive in-depth analysis of 35 interviews, focusing on the metaphors they use, the research reveals negative perceptions related to the RC and present four resulting stereotypes.

Robinson Crusoe, the unintentional responsible consumer!

What does the responsible consumer look like?

 There is no real consensus in empirical studies on the importance of individual characteristics – particularly socio-demographic ones – in the adoption of a responsible consumption behavior; but this does not stop individuals to have an image of these consumers. They see them as a pretty mature and almost old, highly educated, with a comfortable income (middle to upper class) and with children. They do not reject the idea of younger RC, but in this case they are seen as activists. When it comes to their practices, RC sort their waste, recycle, and are concerned by the ecology and natural resources conservation. They are also concerned by the quality of their products, their health and prefer organic, ethical and local products.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that these representations seem rather positive and in line with current social norms, they remain associated to an elitist, unrealistic, and almost utopian depiction of the RC. The absence of pleasure in consumption and the detachment from society are seen as additional external obstacles to the more “traditional” justifications to explain the non-adoption of a responsible behavior – namely the prices of these products, the time required for this consumption, the lack and/or poor quality of the available information.

The four negative stereotypes associated to the responsible consumer

The negative perceptions that have been identified in this study allowed the authors to suggest an original typology for the RC – and somewhat challenging current ones, as it emphasizes on four negative profiles for the RC.

  • The fundamentalist, who is in a “constant battle”, overemphatic and in conflict with anyone that doesn’t show a responsible consumption behavior;

  • The hermit, who is defined by deprivation and asceticism, that lead him/her to marginality or even social isolation;

  • The killjoy, who inhibits his/her pleasure in the interest of duty, and who therefore is seen as a sad person, rigid and too serious;

  • The snob, who is criticised for being arrogant, superior and subjected to politically correct and mainstream social norms. Sometimes seen as a “bobo” (ed. bourgeois bohemian) a consumer that doesn’t act out of conviction but that follows fad phenomenons.

These negative representations of the RC are considered as additional obstacles for the adoption of a responsible consumption. In order to really impact consumption behaviors, marketers have to overcome this challenge and present the RC as modern or liberated, without appearing as moralising or hindering pleasure.

Séré de Lanauze G.  et Lallement J. (2018), Mieux comprendre l’image du consommateur responsable: de la personne idéale aux stéréotypes négatifs, Décisions Marketing, 90, 15-34. [in French]

Blog post adapted by Federico Garcia Baena from Pauline Folcher’s

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