I recently read that a Norwegian online grocer had accounted for a drop in the demand for a number of “carbon-intensive” products sold in the online store since introducing receipts that tell consumers how environmentally friendly [or not] their shopping basket was at checkout. Indeed, the reports stated that orders for less sustainable goods had fallen because customers are aware of their high carbon footprint thanks to the receipts. Which prompted me to write the following article. 

Behavioural economics (the science of understanding people’s purchasing decisions) and environmental psychology (the ways of thinking about our actions, beliefs and behaviours around environmental protection) have a lot to offer in explaining the way we understand our approach to purchasing goods and services. In 2015 a colleague and I conducted some research into environmental attitudes (as measured by a scale which examined Anthropocentric, Ecocentric, or Apathetic attitudes) and financial decision-making behaviours toward mass timber constructed buildings (purchasing/investing).

The Ecocentric and Anthropocentric Attitudes toward the Environment scale (EAATE) was developed by Thompson and Barton (1994) to measure an individual’s attitudes and apprehension for the environment. The Ecocentric sub-scale measures attitudes toward the environment at an intrinsic level. Thus, individuals holding ecocentric views expressing attitudes concerning protection over the environmental as a resource because of the intrinsic value. An example of a question in this sub-scale, “I can enjoy spending time in natural settings just for the sake of being out in nature”.  The Anthropocentric sub-scale, in contrast, measures attitudes toward the environment at an extrinsic level. Consequently, expressing protection over the environment as a resource for maintaining or enhancing the quality of life. An example of the question in this sub-scale, “The thing that concerns me most about deforestation is that there will not be enough lumber for future generations”.

Thompson and Barton (1994) suggest that both Ecocentric and Anthropocentric oriented individuals express concern over preserving the environment, however their motives are distinguishable. The Environmental Apathy sub-scale measures an individual’s indifference to environmental issues. An example of the question in this sub-scale, “Environmental threats such as deforestation and ozone depletion have been exaggerated”. 

Evidence from that study suggests, regardless of prior knowledge about mass timber construction, that participants holding stronger anthropocentric environmental attitudes – a protection over the environment as a resource for maintaining or enhancing the quality of life – revealed a moderate correlation toward the use of timber in construction. The positive relationship between these two variables is somewhat expected given anthropocentrically oriented individuals perceive the natural environment as a resource and timber as a byproduct from within resource. Anthropocentrism refers to the notion that humans are the centre of the universe (Casey & Scott, 2006). For example, comfort, quality of life, and health may all depend upon preserving natural resources. Thompson and Barton (1994) suggest anthropocentric individuals are less likely to act to support the environment as it may threaten other personal values, such as the accumulation of

Australian consumer’s (N =281) attitudes toward a number of identified factors that may constrain the widespread adoption of mass timber construction in Australia were examined. Specifically, the relationship between timber use in construction, factors relating to property purchasing decisions and environmental attitudes. Results from the study suggested anthropocentric attitudes mediate the relationship between positive attitudes toward timber use in construction (sustainability, durability, structural properties, economics) and financial factors involved in making a property purchasing decision, such as monthly repayments, interest rates, return on investment and cost of insurance

In addition, in the research participants expressed a poor knowledge of the Green Star rating system, which is understandable given that the majority of the property types considered whilst responding to this questionnaire were detached houses. At the time there was no ‘Green Star Home’ rating system in Australia. Therefore, awareness of the program was limited to, typically, commercial or very large multi-residential projects.

Responses were neutral with respect to the amount of influence a ‘rating system’ would have on their purchasing decisions. As Young, Hwang, McDonald, and Oates (2010) suggest, green consumer’s product purchasing decisions comprise a multitude of factors not just a single rating. Such factors include, context, environmental knowledge, values, feedback and certain ‘green criteria’ – or the sustainable/green rating of the product. In the study we found that participant’s responses indicate that environmentally sustainable design in building practices as important in their decisions to purchase products and services.

Regarding environmental attitudes toward timber in construction, it appears a lack of general knowledge about emissions and energy consumption as it relates to timber use in construction is poor. At the time of the study participants do not perceive that timber contributes to the buildings overall ‘greenness’ through lower emissions and the storage of carbon. In order for property developers to achieve the potential to attract price premiums, misconceptions associated with the use of timber need to be dispelled. 

Given the change in society regarding our awareness of ‘carbon emissions’ and connecting these to everyday consumer-oriented behaviours (i.e. buying groceries) could be the next evolution in the development of accounting systems that provide recognition and feedback on items including the choice of building, house or apartment. Imagining a world in which the developers (building a net-zero project) being matched with consumers who have a consciousness for low-carbon investments and purchasing behaviours. I can see it happening, and soon. 

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Paul Kremer Founder IAMTC.org