Why does the “responsible consumer” continue to have a (too) negative image?

At a time when the President of the Republic himself evokes the notion of sobriety for the first time, let us look for a moment at the meaning that the enhancement of this unattractive term could have for a consumer.

The question is well known to responsible consumers who are surprised to see so much talk and so little action. It is also well known to researchers who are desperately trying to understand this gap between attitudes and behaviors in terms of responsible consumption.

This word sobriety, unattractive as it may be, now launched, defended and presented at the highest level of the State, will we finally see the image of this responsible consumer evolve? Indeed, if the notion of responsibility is generally presented as positive, what happens to that of responsible consumer? How do the press and advertising convey this image? Do we want, deep down, as consumers to be responsible consumers?

Could we not suppose that the very image of the responsible consumer, an image perhaps not so positive after all, would partly explain the gap between attitudes and behaviors -the famous “do what I say, not what I do”- in terms of responsible consumption?

A responsible consumer who is not “sexy”

The results of a study that we carried out with consumers on the image they had of a responsible consumer allowed us to identify several negative archetypal figures of the responsible consumer.

Based on an in-depth analysis of the respondents’ discourse, four unattractive metaphors shed light on the latent images associated with the responsible consumer. I would be, at your choice, a fundamentalist, a hermit, a party pooper or even a snob.

  • The fundamentalist (or even the ayatollah) expresses the perceptions of a responsible consumer in permanent conflict with the rest of society and willfully in excess and intransigence.
  • The hermit is a second image often evoked, of a responsible consumer at odds with society, isolated and marginal, often in deprivation and a return to the past, to the steam engine.
  • The spoilsport is a sad person, too serious, always in duty more than pleasure and voluntarily moralizing.
  • In short, à l’opposé, le consommateur responsable peut aussi être vu comme un snob, il est alors perçu comme le «bobo», hautain, supérieur, soumis aux influences des médias et des effets de mode, et ayant en plus les moyens financiers that’s why.

The analysis of these different negative archetypes of the responsible consumer reveals as many barriers to the adoption of responsible consumption behaviour. Respectively, we thus identify a brake on integration linked to the fear of conflicts induced by a position perceived as too fundamentalist, “hard-line”; a brake on desirability with this other form of marginality associated with the hermit and the rejection of modernity; a brake on hedonism, if we follow the killjoy, incapable of any spontaneous pleasure, and rationalizing any consumerist decision. Finally, the “foolish” responsible consumer is associated with the brake on identification and the rejection of an elitist and condescending position.

Too often we find these archetypes, broadcast and transmitted by advertising, of a responsible consumer who is not very “sexy”.

Various types of negative perceptions

Will we all be responsible consumers one day? -Mohammad Hassan

In a next step, another piece of research that we have published sought to verify to what extent these archetypes could effectively have an explanatory effect on the intentions and conduct of responsible consumption. The study, carried out with a sample of 363 individuals, analyzed the reactions of those surveyed to a message inviting them to follow a recommendation issued by a responsible consumer.

Initially, the statistical analyzes clearly identified three types of negative perceptions, according to how they rated their relationship with themselves (risk of loss of desirability according to commonly accepted criteria of beauty or youth), their relationship with others (risk of loss of socialization in connection with perception in the eyes of others) or even the relationship with modernity (risk of being out of step with the present and modernity).

The study then showed that if responsible consumer perceptions remained positive (in general, respondents did not directly criticize the responsible consumer who urged them to behave responsibly), the associated negative perceptions influenced responsible behavior intentions.

In addition, the study shows that the perception of oneself as a responsible consumer moderates the observed effect. For consumers who declare themselves to be less responsible than others on average, any defect associated with the responsible consumer, be it lack of sociability, convenience or modernity, is likely to penalize behavioral intentions. While for consumers who declare themselves to be more responsible on average than the rest of the sample, only lack of modernity can negatively influence their intentions. They are probably the first to suffer from the lack of modernity associated with the image of the responsible consumer…

Responsibility injunctions

The pressure of the news is stronger today on our behavior. The health crisis, then the recent manifestations of the climate crisis, finally the purchasing power crisis, in a context of energy crisis and inflation, all of this tends to multiply calls for more responsible consumption.

If there is the possibility that we will witness, under the effect of these crises, a gradual reduction in the gap between attitudes and behaviors in terms of responsible consumption, it will also be interesting to observe what the repercussions will be on the image perceived by the responsible consumer.

How glamorous, sociable and modern will it become in the foreseeable future? Above all, to what extent will we not need such positive figures to accompany us in the transitions to come?

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This analysis was written by Gilles Séré de Lanauze, Marketing Professor at the University of Montpellier, and Jeanne Lallement, Marketing Professor at the University of La Rochelle.

The original article was published on the site of The conversation.

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