Please Mind the Gap

Please Mind the Gap

We all know how vital it is that we protect the environment, but often our concerns do not translate into action. The unpredictability of our environmentally-conscious tendencies has been ascribed to a phenomenon called the ‘value-action gap’. 

Tekst: Robin Hetzel
Foto: CC0 Public Domain

There are many examples of this: a person who drives an electric vehicle but also buys furniture made of tropical wood, a person who really likes the optic of green fashion but still buys cheaper, environmentally unfriendly clothes or a person who promotes local food but still buys avocados. 

“Why is it that our actual behaviour deviates so far from these apparent concerns?” 

All of the above cases depict everyday situations in which individuals know how they should behave in order to protect the environment or live more sustainably. However even when we know what we should do, often our behaviour does not align with our principles. Despite increasing awareness of environmental issues – from the melting of the icecaps to deforestation in the Amazon – environmentally conscious behaviour remains inconsistent. Why is it that our actual behaviour deviates so far from these apparent concerns? 

For decades this question has occupied researchers from a variety of disciplines, but we have yet to find a definitive explanation. Despite this lack of certitude there are many interesting studies that are worth further consideration. One of the key elements in these investigations is a socio-psychological phenomenon called the ‘value-action gap’. 

What prevents us from going green? 

This hypothesis was first proposed by Martin E. Fishbein and his colleague Icek Ajzen. They theorised that all individual attitudes include an intention component which is related to each individual’s general worldview and belief system. Next, they made the assumption that humans will always act in a rational way by making best use of the available information in any given circumstance. This model attempted, unsuccessfully, to create a rationale for environmentally conscious behaviour. Instead, several later surveys revealed three main barriers that stand between an individual’s environmental values and their ultimate actions. 

The first barrier that they discovered is – strange though it may sound – individuality. It transpires that personal concerns often outweigh environmental concerns when it comes to an individual’s choices and actions. In the context of consumer choice many individual’s environmental ideals come second to issues of price and quality. Individuality also results in a lack of awareness of collective power. This creates scepticism about an individual’s ability to create change through social organisation, for example in the form of campaigning for increased environmental awareness.   

The second, more significant barrier regards the notion of responsibility and relates to the factors which embed an individual within the larger social context.  

In today’s global society many people feel that they lack the power to affect change on a relevant scale. Others are aware of and concerned about changes that are taking place in the environment but see no need to change their own behaviour. There are also people who wish to behave in a more environmentally responsible manner but lack trust in their ability to do so. When viewed as a whole these issues lead an individual to the conclusion they cannot be responsible for the environment when taken as a whole because their individual actions are too small to have a significant impact. 

The final barrier is that of practicality. This refers to all reasons both social and institutional that prevent eco-friendly behaviour. Examples of practical issues are: lack of time, money, information or necessary facilities. 

The conflict with green products 

One particular case that illustrates the gap between widespread environmental awareness and relevant individual behaviour is that of purchasing of eco-friendly products. In an investigation into purchasing habits where consumers were faced with a choice between green and non-green products, Professor Erik L. Olson from the Norwegian Business School discovered that most consumers felt themselves forced to make a trade-off. Generally, green products were considered to be more expensive, of a lower quality and less effective than their non-green alternatives. In one particular survey Olsen found that 50% of respondents expressed a preference for hybrid cars. However, this translated to only 12% who would follow through on this preference. 

Conversely, in a study entitled It’s not easy being green: the effects of attribute trade-offs on green product preference and choice, he found that “strong preferences for green products are found when trade-offs are not apparent”. While only a small proportion of consumers, the so-called ‘dark green’ consumers, were willing to pay a higher price for an apparently inferior quality, a greater number of consumers were willing buy green products that offered additional compensating features. One example of this is the LED TV: it has a higher price than a conventional TV but its reduced energy consumption appeals to consumers on both green and pragmatic levels. 

“As individual consumers we do not have control over the price or quality of green products but there are other ways in which we can contribute to the protection of the environment” 

How to walk your talk 

As individual consumers we do not have direct control over the creation and supply of green products but there are other ways in which we can contribute to the protection of the environment. Obviously, this task would be made easier if the creation of environmentally unfriendly products was illegal, but as we mentioned above, abdication of responsibility in the face of perceived lack of power is one of the barriers that separates an individual’s environmental ideals from their actions. What we really need is simply that people ‘walk the talk’. It doesn’t matter if our actions are inconsistent or if they seem inconsequential to us, the most important thing is that we act. 

The first step towards reducing the gap between ideals and actions is to become aware of your own attitudes and behaviours. With awareness of the three barriers to action described above, it becomes easier to evaluate your behaviour and identify situations where more environmentally responsible actions are possible. 

In the age of digital media, it is easier than ever to connect to local networks where membership in like-minded communities can make it more enjoyable to make environmentally conscious actions. A first step towards more green behaviour might be researching more about locally available, seasonally-appropriate food instead of purchasing foods that have been flown in from the other side of the globe. Perhaps next time you go on holiday you might consider that a cabin-trip near Oslo could be just as ‘koselig’ as a long-haul flight to Thailand. 

Despite research that explains the gap between environmental awareness and individual action, it remains challenging to make accurate predictions about individual behaviour. Human behaviour will always be difficult to predict, no matter how many theories attempt to explain it. Nevertheless, taking a closer look at the action-value gap phenomenon can increase our awareness of the significance of our own actions and the relative ease of ‘walking your talk’. In the words of the famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”