Typically, the products we buy fall into two categories; conventional or “green.” Western Washington University Associate Professor Cat Armstrong Soule, along with assistant professor Tejvir Sekhon, are researching a third option for consumers; not buying anything at all.
Armstrong Soule and Sekhon, both faculty members in Western’s Finance and Marketing Department, recently had their work on “conspicuous anti-consumption” published in the journal Psychology & Marketing. Armstrong Soule says she and Sekhon are among a growing portion of marketing academics who are researching marketing as a force for good, not just a methodology to push consumers to buy more. Western Today recently talked with Armstrong Soule and Sekhon about their research, and how it goes against the grain of traditional marketing.
WT: How can marketing help consumers to reduce consumption?
Tej: A lot of our consumption is driven by symbolic benefits associated with material consumption, such as signaling one’s worth, wealth or status to others, rather than purely functional benefits.
Traditionally, marketing has played an important role in linking material consumption with those benefits. More recently, marketers have linked the same symbolic benefits to a different type of consumption, often called “green” consumption. However, these symbolic benefits can drive even more socially and environmentally beneficial goals if we can link them to reduced or anti-consumption ... and who better than marketers to do that?
Cat: I think that there are a lot of ways that marketers can “flip” the role of marketing in ways that can provide net benefit to sustainability efforts. Historically, marketing is seen as focused on creating products and promoting them to consumers, persuading them to buy more. Green demarketing refers to when brands instead encourage and enable consumers to reduce their consumption overall through buying fewer products - by making products that last longer, discouraging excessive consumption and/or incentivizing people to repair rather than replace their products.
Of course, forgoing consumption is painful to consumers in some ways - Our research shows a helpful tool that brands can provide consumers is a “signal” - something publicly visible like a sticker, patch, button or hashtag - that conveys an environmental motivation to others about the consumers’ anti-consumption activities.
Patagonia, for example, will repair your jacket, but it also affixes a patch indicating that it is “Worn Wear” and has created marketing campaigns so that not only do we know we can repair our jackets, but if we see a patch on someone’s jacket, we know they have done something “good” for the planet.
WT: What are some examples of successful demarketing or anti-consumption campaigns?
Cat: Another example would be Buy Me Once... many, many brands are getting in on the resale/second hand action related to more circular consumption patterns. WalMart’s partnership with ThredUp and See You Tomorrow by Nordstrom are other examples.
WT: On the consumer side, what are the barriers to lessening consumption?
Tej: The biggest barrier is worrying that others might think we are poor, less successful and less worthy of their respect because our consumption is a signal of our socioeconomic status. The most salient inference that observers make from somebody not consuming at the level accepted by society is a lack of financial resources that is so closely tied to the ideas of success and worth in our culture.
Cat: Well, anti-consumption can be painful despite the upside of spending less money. When you abstain from consumption, you lose the joy of acquiring something new. There is not much that brands could do on that front - however, as Tej mentioned, we may be able to address the symbolic side - the reputational benefits that one gets from how they are perceived based on their choices. If wearing an old jacket is better for the environment, but buying a new jacket results in you being perceived to be stylish or high status, it’s hard to get that consumer, even a “green” one, to hold back from that potentially wasteful purchase. These signals brands can provide seem to restore those reputational benefits by conveying the prosocial motive to others.
WT: What are some motivations to implement anti-consumption marketing? Wouldn’t companies lose money?
Tej: Though we cannot deny ideological/prosocial/environmental motivations of the founders/senior leadership, there is also a clear business case in terms of building a differentiated brand meaning in a cultural environment where brands/marketing are considered a part of the problem. That differentiated meaning then translates into building strong resonant brands leading to financial value for the firm.
However, fundamental reconsideration of business models as well as flawless execution can go a long way in helping green demarketing brands make money while encouraging anti-consumption. As discussed before, if a major benefit of consumption are the symbolic benefits, these could be decoupled from actual material consumption and attached to the brand which consumers would still want to pay for.
For example, access-based consumption as compared to ownership-based consumption can meet the same functional needs without unnecessary resource depletion. Brands in the access-based (or sharing) economy can still make money if they can remove the symbolic penalties (and add symbolic rewards) to engaging in anti-consumption.
Cat: I think at this point it is clear that consumers expect brands to play a role in turning around the environmental damage that has been done for centuries. As brands adopt the triple bottom line, anti-consumption and how it is practiced can result in improvements to all those metrics (profit, people, planet).
For example, REI tells consumers to #OptOutside and not shop on Black Friday. The benefits in brand equity through value alignment for consumers seem to greatly outweigh the loss of one day’s revenue. I think that C-level leadership (CEO, CIO, etc.) teams are pivoting to triple bottom line because consumers are demanding it and also will subsequently reward it in the marketplace.
WT: How can traditional companies pivot towards ‘green demarketing’ in a way that feels genuine?
Tej: That is an important piece of the puzzle. Consumers have learned to be very skeptical of marketers’ motives as they have been constantly exposed to insincere marketing efforts that are sometimes completely divorced from the actual business model.
One way to make sure that green demarketing feels genuine to the consumers is not to treat a green demarketing campaign as an afterthought - as a “cherry on top” of any business model. It needs to be in the DNA or the essence of the brand and then the entire business model (raw material sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, reverse supply-chain) needs to be built around that DNA. The issue is that it is hard to fundamentally change the entire business model for traditional companies without taking a big hit to the current profit margins.
However, when we think about those costs in risk reduction terms, as a long-term firewall against rapid environmental degradation that would surely affect the revenues in future, a business case can be made to incur those costs today.
Cat: I think, as Tej says, it’s hard to do this type of thing as a “one off.” A single advertising campaign is just going to be confusing (at best) or feel deceptive at worst. These ideas have to be “baked in” to the brand and all operations. So if a brand doesn’t have a stellar environmental reputation, I think that the change needs to be consistent through many levels (changing business strategy and operations as well as more outward facing means like marketing communications), and slow, because putting out contradicting messages can be very detrimental to brands.
WT: What would sell brands that are typically outside of the ‘green industry’ on this marketing tactic?
Tej: This applies to all product categories where we might be worried of being judged harshly if we do not consume to the level of others. Are consumers worried about being judged by others if they live in a house smaller than everybody else around them, or driving a sedan/bicycle instead of an SUV, or taking a local (instead of international) vacation, or wearing the same coat twice to a party? If yes, then all of these categories are ripe for the birth of a green demarketing brand.
Cat: I also think that brands in categories that make products that are inherently high-impact on the environment are well suited to get on board, even when they aren’t “green.” For example, the automotive industry, travel/airlines and fast fashion. These industries have the potential to make large scale change.