Deconstructing Intensified Pressures Faced by Environmental Studies Students in Consumer Identity Construction
Over the past two decades, the idea of consumers emotionally connecting to or identifying with a brand has appeared as a vital measure of consumer loyalty for brands that are marked by their efforts in corporate social responsibility (Bhattacharya & Sen as cited in Chun, 2016). When consumers perceive a brand’s values or persona as similar to theirs, they are more likely to patronise that brand (Kassarjian as cited in Chun, 2016). This behaviour is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from the good-hearted to the insidious — such as the desire to showcase one’s values to others (Ottman, 2011), influence choices of corporate entities (Fung, Graham, & Weil as cited in Parker, 2013), or to flaunt one’s wealth by purchasing ‘green’ products that typically, are more expensive (Nash, 2011; Benveniste, 2019). These factors also shape consumer identities — the identities that we construct through our consumption patterns. According to the Professional and Academic Discourse Research Group (“Not so ‘innocent’ after all”, 2016), identity is “socially constructed in and through discourse and communication and as constantly negotiated between participants” (p. 4). Identity is, therefore, an act that is produced by people that is dependent on situational factors and inter-participant relationships (“Not so ‘innocent’ after all”, 2016).
As an environmental studies student, I often feel an intensified pressure to position myself as a user of ‘green’ products or a supporter of ‘green’ companies. This happens as a result of my personal desire to participate in climate action or to show others that I am acting on my exhortation to them to care more for the environment in order to influence them to take action, but also out of my fear of recrimination. In an attempt to better understand whether others also experience these pressures, I conducted a survey among other first-year environmental studies students at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The 24 respondents were between 19 to 23 years old, and mostly female, as reflective of the gender makeup of the batch.
From the survey, I found that these pressures I experience are also felt by others. Out of 24 respondents, a majority answered that they do feel additional pressure — whether internal or external — to purchase ‘green’ products or support ‘green’ companies because of their status as environmental studies students. This essay thus hopes to elucidate these intensified pressures possibly stemming from their chosen field of study — both internal and external — that environmental studies students face in attempting to construct their consumer identities as people that want to care for and act on environmental causes.
The internal pressure that is faced by many of the respondents stems from three leading causes — a personal desire to support ‘green’ companies in order to feel good, wanting to signal one’s environmental convictions, and eco-guilt (see Figure 1). As environmental studies students, they are likely to already possess pro-environmental leanings or values, and the desire to act upon their beliefs — as evidenced by their choice of study. Unsurprisingly, 83.3% of respondents said that they experience positive emotions when supporting ‘green’ companies. As environmental studies students, their pro-environmental beliefs makes it more likely that they would experience such positive emotions from “supporting a cause” they “believe in”. Most of them experienced a sense of satisfaction, pride, and empowerment when engaging in ‘green’ consumption, corroborating findings in recent literature. Ottman (2011) writes that people experience such feelings of empowerment when patronising brands that they see as benefiting society and the environment, and Schneider, Zabal, Weber, and Markowitz (2013) expound on the positive effects of “anticipated pride” (p. 3) on encouraging pro-environmental behaviour such as ‘green’ consumption. Additionally, satisfaction, which was experienced by almost all survey respondents, has been found to have a cyclic effect with pro-environmental behaviour — people who participated more in pro-environmental behaviours were more likely to be more satisfied with their life overall (Schmitt, Aknin, Axsen, & Schwom, 2018), and a higher life satisfaction attracted people to engage in pro-environmental behaviour (Wang & Kang, 2019). As predicted, 60% of respondents who experienced positive emotions from purchasing ‘green’ products also felt that these positive emotions made them want to continue consuming these products.
In addition to the desire to feel good, some respondents also experienced personal pressure to signal their pro-environmental leaning. In supporting ‘green’ companies, these students not only purchase these products for their “functional benefits but also the… symbols, and social meanings” (Chun, 2016, p. 529) linked to the brand’s identity as ‘green’ that they hope to display to others. Some expressed that after learning about environmental issues, they now had the responsibility to engage in pro-environmental behaviour to influence others around them:
“I feel that as [an environmental studies] student learning about pressing environmental issues (and to some extent contributing to env [sic] causes) I should walk the talk and be a positive example for my friends/family.”
These responses are reflective of studies that show the positive correlation between one’s knowledge of environmental issues and one’s sense of responsibility to participate in pro-environmental behaviour (Lin & Shi, 2012) — which, in this case, is attempting to encourage pro-environmental behaviour in others.
Additionally, another cause of internal pressure for environmental studies students is eco-guilt. Eco-guilt is the guilt that surfaces when a person realises that their behaviour is harming the environment (Mallett, 2012). When asked if they experienced negative emotions when purchasing ‘green’ products, guilt was often raised as an answer, often as a result of self-perceived failure to act in accordance with their own pro-environmental beliefs or to live up to their standard for others, such as “feeling like a hypocrite”. This pervasive sense of guilt among environmental studies students for not engaging in pro-environmental behaviour could be due to their heightened awareness of environmental issues that increased feelings of culpability for environmental degradation (Moore & Yang, 2019), consequently eliciting stronger feelings of guilt when they failed to engage in pro-environmental behaviour. Upon realising they have partaken in behaviour contrary to their pro-environmental beliefs and experiencing eco-guilt, people are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviour such as ‘green’ consumption in attempts to reclaim their identities (Steele as cited in Mallett, 2012), as can be observed in the 62.5% of respondents who answered that their feelings of guilt drive them to make more ‘green’ purchases.
Although intensified internal pressures do play a part in influencing consumer behaviour among environmental studies students, the external pressure that environmental studies students experience also plays a key part in shaping their consumer identities. This external pressure seems to arise from worries about scrutiny from others due to a fear of being eco-shamed — the act of openly deriding people for not behaving sustainably (McMullin, 2019). Similar to eco-guilt, the act of eco-shaming someone seeks to evoke “anticipated shame” (Amatulli, De Angelis, Peluso, Soscia, & Guido, 2019) in the target to push them towards engaging in pro-environmental behaviour. Many respondents wrote about their worries about judgement from peers — especially from other environmental studies students and faculty — and being held up to a “higher standard than people from other majors”:
“I feel like I need to live up to other people’s expectations as well as my own because not changing your behaviour to be more green contradicts why you are in this course.”
“Judgement, especially when the perception of BES from people outside our course tends to be that we hold ourselves to high standards.”
Moreover, a high percentage of respondents had experienced eco-shaming first-hand — 79.2% of the respondents stated that they had been called out for their use of products that were not perceived as ‘green’, and 68.4% of the above responded that they experienced negative emotions from those experiences — primarily guilt and shame. Such emotions result in pro-environmental behaviour that provides targets of eco-shaming an avenue to restore a positive image of themselves (Tangney & Dearing as cited in Amatulli et al., 2019). This may be particularly important for most environmental studies students, for whom being ‘pro-environment’ is part of their identity.
While seemingly innocuous, the intensified pressure felt by environmental studies students to support ‘green’ consumption may not actually be beneficial for the environment, especially when it is to alleviate feelings of eco-guilt or to placate critics. Ironically, by purposely purchasing more ‘green’ products or supporting only ‘green’ companies, individuals may generate a greater environmental impact (Zink & Geyer, 2016) because of increased consumption and waste production. As one student puts it:
“There is also a problem of greenwashing by some companies so people need to be discerning when buying green products. Some companies also promote the “feel good” effect of buying supposedly trendy green products which you [sic] do not necessarily need. Moreover, many products need not be bought from green companies. One can try to prolong the lifespan of items they are currently using or make use of what they already have with a little touch of creativity and innovation.”
In addition, unlike environmental studies students, many people are not equipped with the environmental knowledge to make better-informed decisions on whether a product is simply ‘green’ or indeed ‘sustainable’. This means that if environmental studies students are seeking to avoid eco-shaming by using products that are perceived as ‘green’ by the layman, it is likely that many of the ‘green’ products they then use are not any more ‘sustainable’, such as the use of paper bags over plastic bags in Singapore (Baker, 2020). Not only could this be harmful to the environment, but these students also miss the opportunity to utilise the environmental knowledge they possess to educate others in discerning between ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ products. Furthermore, this could then result in the individual feeling more guilt, causing a vicious cycle of eco-guilt.
Therefore, it is vital that we understand the additional pressures faced by environmental studies students in the construction of their consumer identities and address them. While some are helpful — such as positive reinforcement from emotions such as satisfaction, pride, and empowerment — others may be harmful in the long run, namely eco-guilt and eco-shaming. Thus, it is crucial that environmental studies students also refrain from contributing to the current call-out culture of eco-shaming each other. Consequently, it is also essential for them to remember that in the construction of their consumer identities, their consumer choices should be driven by the environmental knowledge that they already possess — rather than reflexive choices due to negative external pressure — in order to transcend ‘green’ consumption to make consumer choices that are truly sustainable.
 While the terms ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ are frequently utilised synonymously in the press and literature, Elliot (2013) posits that there is a distinction between the two. In this essay, I follow the same distinction: using ‘green’ consumption when referring to products that are “marketed as environmentally friendly” (p. 295) — but these products may or may not be truly ‘sustainable’.
 ‘BES’ refers to the Bachelor of Environmental Studies, the environmental studies course at NUS that the survey respondents are enrolled in.
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Questions From Survey Conducted With First-Year Environmental Studies Students
- Do you feel additional pressure (whether internal or external) to purchase ‘green’ products or support ‘green’ companies because you are an environmental studies student?
- Why do you feel / not feel this pressure?
- How often do you purchase ‘green’ products?
- Do you experience positive emotions when you purchase ‘green’ products?
- What positive emotions do you experience?
- Do those positive emotions make you want to purchase ‘green’ products more?
- Do you experience negative emotions when you do not purchase ‘green’ products?
- What negative emotions do you experience?
- Do those negative emotions make you want to purchase ‘green’ products more?
- Have you ever been called out for your use of products that are not perceived as ‘green’?
- Did you experience negative emotions from that/those experiences?
- What negative emotions did you experience?
- Have you ever tried to hide your use of products that are not perceived as ‘green’ from others? Why?