Humans' overconsumption of resources – from the food and clothes we buy to the methods of transportation we choose – is a leading contributor to global climate change, says University of Arizona researcher Sabrina Helm. Therefore, it's increasingly important to understand the choices consumers make and how those decisions affect the health of a planet with limited resources.
In a new study, published in the journal Young Consumers, Helm and her collaborators explore how culturally entrenched materialistic values influence pro-environmental behaviors in millennials, who are now the nation's most influential group of consumers.
The researchers focused on two main categories of pro-environmental behaviors: 1) reduced consumption, which includes actions like repairing instead of replacing older items, avoiding impulse purchases and not buying unnecessary items; and 2) "green buying," or purchasing products designed to limit environmental impacts, such as goods made from recycled materials.
The researchers also looked at how engaging in pro-environmental behaviors affects consumer well-being.
More materialistic participants, the researchers found, were unlikely to engage in reduced consumption. However, materialism did not seem to have an effect on their likelihood of practicing "green buying." That's probably because "green buying," unlike reduced consumption, still offers a way for materialists to fulfill their desire to accumulate new items, Helm said.
"There is evidence that there are 'green materialists,'" said Helm, an associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "If you are able to buy environmentally friendly products, you can still live your materialist values. You're acquiring new things, and that fits into our mainstream consumption pattern in our consumer culture, whereas reduced consumption is more novel and probably more important from a sustainability perspective."
Study participants who reported having fewer materialistic values were much more likely to engage in reduced consumption. Consuming less was, in turn, linked to higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress.