Department of the Environment

About us | Contact us | Publications

About us header images - leftAbout us header images - centreAbout us header images - right

Publications archive


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

More with Less - Initiatives to promote sustainable consumption

Environmental Economics Research Paper No.3
Prepared by Deni Greene Consulting Services,
Australian Consumers Association and National Key Centre for Design, RMIT for the
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories

Commonwealth of Australia, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24869 9

Findings and Conclusions

Promoting Environmentally Responsible Action

The first finding of the study was that there is a very large range of initiatives currently being undertaken to promote changes in consumer behavior so as to reduce environmental impact. Many of these involve production of brochures, booklets, or other information materials. In some cases, it appears that the main motive of the body producing the material is to show that it is active in the environmental area, rather than to have any real impact on consumers. The initiatives selected for detailed analysis have a more serious intent. Although this was not a rigorous scientific study, it is possible to make some judgments about the types of initiatives that were effective and the reasons for success or failure.

Market researchers generally consider that the three stages of consumption behavior are: attitude, intent, and action. Although environmental surveys show that most people are concerned about the environment, their attitude toward a particular environmental issue is likely to be a function, at least to some degree, of their understanding of the issue. Their intention to take a particular action that will benefit the environment clearly reflects some understanding of the link between the action and environmental protection or between the action and some other desired end. Information and awareness programs and other types of publicity can change attitudes and foster intentions. The more powerful, clear and memorable the messages and programs, the more likely they are to have a substantial impact.

Attitudes are far more easily translated into intentions than intentions are translated into action. Many obstacles can stand between an intention to act and acting, the most widespread of which is simply inertia. The most successful initiatives provide some mechanism for encouraging people to translate intentions into action. Economic incentives, messages at the point of purchase, threats of penalties for inaction, or incentives in addition to environmental benefit are all likely to contribute to turning intent into action. Intent can be blocked from becoming action if the necessary means of acting are unavailable: a few years ago it was difficult to use recycled paper because it was not widely offered for sale.

Even with the best intentions, some people are prevented from taking particular types of action because there are institutional or economic impediments. As an example, low income people, particularly renters, often have little ability to influence the energy efficiency of their homes, either because they cannot afford insulation or because they are reluctant to insulate a home they do not own.

A recent study of environmental change campaigns (Cosgrove et al, 1995) cited a number of factors identified by earlier researchers as contributing to the success of change campaigns:

  1. For a campaign to be successful, widespread exposure to its message is necessary;
  2. The mass media plays an important role not only in increasing awareness of the message, but in stimulating interpersonal communication, for example with opinion leaders;
  3. Interpersonal communication through peer networks is important in leading to and maintaining behavior change;
  4. The message will be enhanced by the perceived credibility of the communication source;
  5. Evaluation of the campaign during its execution can improve its effectiveness;
  6. Campaign appeals that are socially distant from the groups targeted will not succeed;
  7. Campaigns will be more effective if they use segmentation techniques targeting specific messages to particular audiences;
  8. Campaigns promoting prevention of some future problem are less likely to succeed than those dealing with immediate consequences;
  9. Campaigns will be more successful if their message is timely.

Lessons Learned from this Study

Obligatory or coercive initiatives

The analysis of initiatives showed, not surprisingly, that where consumers have no choice but to act in an environmentally responsible way, they will act in that way. The initiatives that created an obligation or had a mandatory aspect, and their level of success, were:

high level of success

moderate success

no success

In the highly successful initiatives, compliance was mandatory (or perceived to be so) or avoidance was difficult. While it was possible to commute by car to North Sydney, it was difficult, impossible, or expensive to find a parking space, so compliance was probably easier than evasion. Similarly, people in Wangaratta could ignore the law and deposit recyclable in their rubbish bins, but the threatened $400 fine made such an action seem foolish because compliance was easy. These initiatives were generally accompanied by considerable publicity and promotion.

The initiatives in this category which achieved only moderate success did so because their mandate was limited. The tyre recycling initiative prohibited illegal disposal, but legal disposal was still permitted. The use of natural gas buses is presumably effective in reducing environmental impact, and it changes the fuel consumption behavior of people who ride those buses, but it is only moderately effective overall because a limited portion of the bus fleet in each city is involved.

The unsuccessful initiatives in this category failed for technical or institutional reasons. The Melbourne rubbish trial had several critical failures of equipment or process, so it could not produce the desired results. The Gippsland Lakes initiative may be successful when pumpout facilities are provided, but at present it is difficult for boat owners to comply.

Mandatory actions can be seen to succeed unless they are technically flawed, or perhaps in cases where compliance imposes a real burden that can be avoided by a failure to act in the prescribed way.

Initiatives Offering Incentives

Unlike mandatory actions, measures relying on incentives to action have to appeal to the consumer with a choice. The initiatives relying on incentives analyzed in this study can be seen to vary considerably in their level of success.

high level of success

moderate success

no success

SEQEB Rebates for Energy Efficient Homes Successful initiatives in this category were strongly promoted so that consumers recognized they were being offered a personal benefit at the same time as they were helping the environment. It appears that the petrol excise differential and the Maroochy, Lismore and Queensland financial incentives were sufficient to motivate people to take an action that they might have wanted to take before but had not acted on before because of a financial barrier or inertia. The Perth rail line offered people a more comfortable way to travel and Hunter water rates made efficient use substantially more financially attractive.

The Adelaide Busway is considered to be of moderate success because although some people consider that the increased speed of commuter travel makes it an attractive option, it has not produced a major impact on the number of people commuting by car in Adelaide.

The incentive programs with a low level of success did not offer potential participants sufficient reason to promote action. Voluntary programs for industry appear ineffective unless there is strong government or consumer pressure for action. Two of the initiatives with nil success: the car park levy and the fuel consumption targets were easily evaded; the SEQEB rebates were poorly targeted, so offered little incentive for action.

These initiatives demonstrate that incentive programs have to be designed carefully if they are to work. This is likely to require considerable market research to provide an understanding of the types of incentives that will induce particular groups of consumers to make a change. Such initiatives will also generally be far more successful where they are well promoted, and where consumers have a clear understanding of the benefits to be gained.


Use of Communication and Promotion

Promotion is generally used in combination with information or incentives to encourage action. The mixed results of the initiatives in this category indicate that promotion is not a guarantee of success.

high level of success

moderate success

low level of success

The initiatives achieving a high level of success used promotion along with information, and in some cases incentives, to help consumers gain a clear understanding of the benefits they would achieve.

The success of energy rating labels is considered to be only moderate because factors other than energy performance may be very important to consumers and may strongly affect selection of appliances. Nevertheless the rating labels have had a substantial impact on the mix of products on the market. A substantial number of the low rating products have been removed from the market; many manufacturers now aim to achieve five or six star ratings for their products.

Purchasers of toilet paper may be confused by all the variation of product types available. Interestingly, ABS surveys showed that about two thirds of people say they buy recycled paper, but this doesn't translate to market share in toilet paper (ABS, 1993). The Model Development Code has achieved only a modest amount of success, possibly because developers have insufficient incentives to adopt it in a major way. As a result, developers may be disinclined to undertake the major amounts of education and promotion they believe would be needed to substantially alter consumers' traditional housing preferences.


Information and education

Only two initiatives relied mainly on information alone:

The levels of success of these initiatives were low and very low, respectively. It appears that information alone is generally insufficient to get people to act in a way that requires change in existing patterns of behavior. The broad survey of initiatives shown in Appendix 1 shows that the majority of initiatives are based on the provision of information without any additional clear incentive to action. It seems likely that a large amount of money and effort is currently going into initiatives with a very low probability of success.


Promising Areas for Action

Areas of consumer activity which offer significant potential for measures to reduce the environmental impact of consumption can be assessed according to two quite different criteria: the environmental significance of the activity and ease of promoting change, where ease of implementation encompasses the degree of consumer choice, economic impacts of the change, the extent of consumer or institutional resistance to change, level of public understanding, and other factors.

These two criteria may result in identification of different areas of activity. As an example, transport energy consumption in Australia is clearly one of the most significant sources of environmental damage, both locally and globally. On a per capita basis, Australian transport energy consumption is far above worldwide averages, and even very high for the industrialised world. On this basis, changes to reduce transport energy use clearly offer significant potential for reducing the environmental impact of consumption. On the other hand, bringing about changes in transport pattern is often far from easy.

Some of the initiatives reviewed in this study have brought about changes in transport patterns that reduce environmental impact. Other initiatives, such as the voluntary National Average Fuel Consumption Targets have achieved very little. It is important to bear in mind, though, that this study only considered initiatives intended to change consumption patterns to reduce environmental impact. There are many other initiatives underway that do not share this objective, and some of them may produce very large shifts in the opposite direction. Examples of this are the massive freeways now being planned or built in a number of states.

It is clearly beyond the scope of this study to identify, let alone resolve, policy conflicts that exist in many areas of domestic consumption activity.To be meaningful, the identification of promising areas for action really should be taken within that broader policy context. Nevertheless, on the basis of the information gained in this study, it would appear that there is strong public support for effective programs of the following type:

Although these areas appear promising, one lesson from this study is that the design of initiatives used and the locations in which they are used can determine success or failure even within likely areas of activity.


Future Action on Sustainable Consumption

Future consideration of sustainable consumption in Australia will need to place the results of the current study within a strategic framework. This will require an adoption of criteria for priority areas of action. It will also necessitate development of and agreement on indicators of change.

Moving toward the achievement of worldwide sustainable consumption will require action in Australia both on reducing impact from our own consumption and on devising and transferring low impact means of improving the quality of life in developing countries. Great efforts will be needed to make substantial progress in each area. There is no doubt, however, that such efforts are essential to the achievement of sustainability.

Albury–Wodonga–Corowa Phosphorus Action Campaign Working Group (1995) Albury–Wodonga–Corowa Phosphorus Action Campaign Performance Review Report July 1995.

Alexander, I. and Houghton, S. (1994) New Investment in Urban Public Transport, Australian Planner Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 7–11.

Allen, P. , Recycling and Resource Recovery Council, Victoria (1995), personal communication.

Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories Logo