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Money Vs. Moral: The Sustainability Self-Image

January 26, 2013

Photo via benirawan

Money is major–business and individuals use it for freedom, fun, security, livelihood, status, you name it. We all want more of it and some people downright need more of it.

Advertising and sustainability campaigns have been using the save money strategy for some time. We’ve all seen it: Go green to save green–makes sense? Well, no. Turns out making cents doesn’t make sense as a public incentive. The save money approach to sustainable awareness is actually backfiring.

It’s All About Number One

Jan Bolderdijk of the University of Groningen, Netherlands, conducted a study published in Nature Climate Change last month comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning.

Using two online questionnaires, people were prompted to receive a free tire check if they either cared about their finances or about the environment. He also set up varying incentives at gas stations with coupon books placed below. In both cases, people preferred saving the planet over money. The coupons under the ‘Do you care about your finances?’ prompt.

Why? Bolderdijk speculates that people want to see themselves as conscientious, morally sound and honest, not frugal or stingy. Ending with a note that policy makers designing ad campaigns to stimulate sustainable behavior in consumers would benefit from taking an approach that maintains, or better yet increases, self-image. In conclusion, using financial self-interest can have a negative effect.

More Money, More Problems

Where money is more prominent as a symbol of success and status, as in first nations like the US, people are ever more strongly tied to achieving financial gains. Here one would think a financial incentive would prove even more effective, but it’s not about saving money, it’s about having enough money you can use it freely.

Where there is more money and higher interest in obtaining more money, self-image becomes even more strongly tied to social standing dependent on economic security. If you’re doing anything to save money, whether clipping coupons or acting in defense of the environment, your self-image becomes negative in light of how you think society will view you.

Yet acting for the planet, you’re viewed as a stand up citizen who is financially sound and choosing to spend your money wisely in the name of the greater good.

Sadly, this proves society actually does care more for money than the planet. Ultimately, people care how they’re regarded by society. Since society sees, or is at least generalized as perceiving, boisterous financial freedom as a primary indicator of status, people act against their own moral values to appear more stable through society’s lens.

So, yes, environmental campaigns should readjust their strategy. More importantly, individuals, not ad campaigns, need to make it clear to each other that acting in the name of the environment and an over all more resilient, sustainable and flourishing future is justified by any means, and whether it’s being advertised or not, many sustainable choices do save you money, so why not save a buck or two while you’re at it?

Further Considerations

The methods behind this study are not particularly compelling, but it does shine light on society’s perception of and responsiveness to the sustainability movement in terms of social paradigms and psychological factors that play an essential underlying role in successful sustainability progression.

That said, awareness and action appear to be rising. Being sustainable and being green are increasingly being accepted and seen as the right, respectable and logical thing to do.

Let’s keep that momentum going.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2013 7:16 am

    Reblogged this on kwalitisme.

  2. Alex Jones permalink
    January 27, 2013 7:36 am

    If I was seen as harming a child or beating a kitten by default my standing is going to collapse in the eyes of those around me, however be green, caring about the less fortunate sends social standing up. It is apparent people care more about social standing than the environment or money, so it is a useful method for change makers to take into account for encouraging people to change their attitudes and behaviour. It may sound artificial to manipulate people into changing attitudes and behaviour by using social standing as a tool but it works, and over time it can cause good habits to form, thus win-win for everyone involved. I have made a note of this tool. Thanks for making me aware of it.

    • January 27, 2013 10:48 am

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. I agree, it seems shifty, but in reality without addressing psychological factors within individuals and society systemic, resilient shifts in attitude and behavior will be hard to come by. You also note one of the most important things one can address in life: forming good habits. Successful advocating for the environment or making exercise part of your life requires expectations, deeper values and routines based on them. Glad you found the information of benefit.

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