Consumers and Climate Change

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  • Title: Consumers and Climate Change: Can the Presence of Others Promote More Sustainable Consumer Choice?
  • Author(s): Laura McGuire, Geoffrey Beattie
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: On Sustainability
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of Environmental Sustainability
  • Keywords: Costly Signalling Theory, Consumer Choice, Climate Change, Carbon Footprint, Organic/Eco, Brand, Social Status
  • Volume: 12
  • Issue: 2
  • Year: 2016
  • ISSN: 2325-1077 (Print)
  • ISSN: 2325-1085 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: McGuire, Laura, and Geoffrey Beattie. 2016. "Consumers and Climate Change: Can the Presence of Others Promote More Sustainable Consumer Choice?." The International Journal of Environmental Sustainability 12 (2): 33-56. doi:10.18848/2325-1077/CGP/v12i02/33-56.
  • Extent: 24 pages


The IPCC have identified a number of aspects of human activity that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and thereby affect climate change. These include such things as population size and patterns of land use that are difficult or impossible to change, especially in the short-term. However, they have also identified “lifestyle” as a major contributory factor. “Lifestyle” is comprised of many of the behavioural choices that we make as consumers in our everyday lives. This makes a deeper understanding of consumer choice a critical consideration in the fight against climate change. One important theoretical issue, deriving from an evolutionary perspective, is how the presence of others affects consumer choice with differing environmental consequences. In this study, we compared the product choices of a set of experimental participants when shopping alone or with friends in a simulated shopping task. We found that the presence of others had a significant effect overall on consumer choice. People are more likely to select well-known brands and luxury products when shopping with others. Costly signalling theory (from evolutionary psychology), where we signal to our friends that we have the resource to purchase these kinds of items, can explain these findings. Similarly, we found that people are more likely to purchase organic or eco brands when shopping with others. Again, this is compatible with costly signalling theory, where we signal here our pro-social orientation through our selections (this is also advantageous in evolutionary terms). However, carbon footprint labels did not work in this way. Our participants were significantly more likely to choose low-carbon items when shopping alone than when shopping with friends. In other words, low-carbon items did not behave like well-known brands, luxury items, or organic/eco products. There appears to be no added social cachet to choosing low-carbon products in public, and this raises significant concerns about whether carbon labelling can genuinely work as an enabling factor. We make some suggestions about how we might raise the recognition value of carbon labels.