Responsible consumption (RC) is a personal growth process in which information and consumers’ ability to access the same is essential. For many years academics have identified information as the core element of the RC process, representing the trigger of the same (mainly champions of the Information Processing Model, and specifically of the Theory of planned behavior or TPB).
According to our research, information is still a key factor… but it is not at the heart of RC behavior. Information represents the seed of RC; a seed that can only grow if other equally essential elements so permit. Information will germinate into RC only if it is sown in rich soil (the individual’s identity, background and circumstances), if the climate is propitious (the influence of others supporting growth and eliminating barriers) and if there is recognition of the positive outcome (RC results in personal satisfaction). In truth, the core element of RC is the soil, while the other components –including information– revolve around this central factor, and thus help responsible consumers to grow, in the same way as a plant will grow.
According to the Theory of Planned Behavior, which still prevails in the field of RC research, RC is a lineal and rational process that is divided into different stages, which an individual sequentially follows: an understanding is reached via information, a determined attitude towards RC is then generated, which then may or may not lead to RC behavior. However, our research has led us to reach the conclusion that RC is not a linear process, as we have not found sequentiality, or a causal relationship or determinism, between the various stages. Therefore, in our view RC should not be understood as a rational process based solely on information and access to the same. RC is also an emotive process that is very much shaped by social norms. Individuals may have access to similar information but only some will react to said information by adopting RC behavior.
In this new scenario, the true role of information in the RC process is twofold:
1. Information allows consumers to forge a critical awareness of the world around them, which helps them to adopt RC behavior. This awareness drives consumers to think about the lifecycle of and impact had by the products and services that they acquire; to factor-in aspects other than price and to seek alternatives that are more coherent with their values.
2. The seed of CR is made up of three information types: information concerning the system, information on actions and information concerning the effects that actions have. Information concerning the system refers to the knowledge that individuals develop regarding the world’s problems and the causes of non-responsible consumption; information concerning actions makes individuals aware of behavioral options or courses of action available to them; while information concerning the effects of actions refers to the potential benefits of courses of action. The third type of information cannot be formed without the first two; indeed, an understanding of the first information type shapes the other two. However, they are not shaped in the same way. This is why we can identify different trees or plants, i.e. different kinds of responsible consumer.
In general, our findings confirm that most of the information refers to events prior to the adoption of RC behavior. However, the information concerning the effects of courses of action has been identified as key to keeping responsible consumers motivated and, therefore, to them sustaining responsible consumer behavior.
E-SOST Research Group, Universidad Pontificia Comillas