‘Shopping is chemical warfare’
This is what Fashion Psychologist Ms Shakaila Forbes-Bell says in her interesting article, Train Your Brain To Only Buy Clothes That You’ll Actually Wear.
Even if some of the highlights in the article might be familiar to someone with a background in the retail industry or to a layperson interest in neuroscience and brain studies, at least it made me stop and reflect once more on my own buying habits.
Our brain loves new stuff
As Forbes-Bell notes, we as human beings take pleasure from novel stimulation and our brain rewards us for that with an immediate dose of the “feel-good chemical”, dopamine, accompanied by a rush of adrenaline. This of course is vital for mankind in the context of evolution and continuous innovation and experimenting; however, it is a bit of a paradox when it comes to our shopping habits. What we think makes us feel so good, i.e., the new merchandise, is not actually the trigger. You will get your dopamine dose from the mere anticipation of going shopping and the act of buying something. Another funny fact is that while you are feeling happy and energetic, the rational decision-making area in your brain is crippled as a side effect.
So – we end up buying stuff that we don’t really need for the feeling that disappears quickly. How stupid is that? Once your hype is over you most likely receive your unfortunate bonus: buyer’s remorse, that is: the mental discomfort that occurs when you make a thoughtless shopping decision.
We are not rational (even though we like to think so)
Daniel Kahneman explains various aspects of human decision-making extensively in his brilliant book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (Ref 1.) We are masters of storytelling: how many times have you managed to convince yourself that there really is a factual reason and legitimate need backing up your decision to buy? I’m not saying that our emotional needs or preferences are not important, I’m just claiming that it is wise to acknowledge which part of our brain is in the driver’s seat (see details from Kahneman’s book explaining how two different thinking models, system 1 and system 2, influence our behavior and decision making). Becoming more aware of our own biased (and lazy) thinking can help us to improve our behavior – at least asking seriously what is truly triggering our decision and need to buy and what is really the most optimal way to fulfill the need.
Why should we care?
Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth regenerates during the entire year. This year, 2022, that date was the 28th of July.
Earth Overshoot Day 2022 home – #MoveTheDate
In Finland, our carbon footprint remains on the high side, even though we have managed to cut down on some of the negative impacts. Changes in the consumption structure and reduction in the specific emissions of many consumer goods have helped to reduce the carbon footprint of Finnish households, and yet – the growth in consumption expenditure has increased emissions.
The most important factor explaining the carbon footprint of household consumption in Finland is the income level. The carbon footprint of households’ highest-income decile is estimated to be nearly three times higher than that of the lowest-income decile. In particular, climate emissions from mobility are high for the country’s wealthiest people.
Suomalaisten kulutuksen hiilijalanjälki on pysynyt liian suurena – Kestävä kehitys (kestavakehitys.fi)
Something must change.
Why don’t we care – or do we?
Sustainability is a hot topic, and various studies have been carried out over the years to better understand consumer attitudes and purchasing behaviors in relation to sustainability. A recent study from the UK, the USA, and Australia (REF 2.) indicates that the adoption of sustainable lifestyles is on the rise, but consumers need more help. Many are already taking concrete actions (Advocates and Learners representing 54% of the population; see figure below), for the remainder of the population, however (Talkers and Stragglers) the topic is not yet relevant enough to drive more fundamental changes in their lifestyle.
A McKinsey report indicates that price, safety, and convenience remain as key drivers for choosing the mode of transport – from 13 different selection criteria sustainability and the ecological footprint were holding positions 10 and 11. (REF 3.)
Deloitte’s study from the UK (Ref 4.) indicates similar outcomes. The main barriers to adopting a more sustainable lifestyle were the perception that it was too expensive (52%), a lack of interest (51%), and not enough information (48%). An obvious finding here is to highlight how critical it is to provide access to information as well as to have affordable more sustainable options available for consumption. It would be interesting to know how the study’s results reflect the socio-economic background; in Finland, high-income households were accountable for the biggest portion of the carbon footprint, and it is hard to believe that for them the cost would be the main impediment in choosing a more sustainable way of living.
What is maybe not emphasized enough in the current discussion, is the lack of interest. From the mindset change perspective, this is a fundamental question. If personal interest is missing, changes in thinking will hardly materialize. Other top-ranking reasons listed were that the individual doesn’t believe it makes a difference (42%), it’s too complicated (41%), or inconvenient (37%).
The survey also asked what consumers would need to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. At the top of the list was a demand for more affordable sustainable alternatives and various specific data-related aspects that bridge the current complexity and inconvenience associated with a sustainable lifestyle. For example, more clarity on how to recycle and dispose of products, clearer information on the sustainability and origin of products, improved transparency and availability of information on the sustainability credentials of companies, and better carbon footprint labeling were mentioned as the biggest enablers for more sustainable consumption.
If you care, rewire your brain
As we already learned from Kahneman, we as human beings tend to be more emotional than rational in our thinking. Our ‘lizard’ brain reacts very easily to triggers that somehow make us feel more inclusive, safe, and normal within our own socio-economic context (Ref 5.) Rational thinking takes lots of effort and we are only willing to invest energy in things that matter to us. As Hollins states, the reason is simple: ‘The logical, rational brain is relatively new and still doesn’t know what to look for to make sound decisions, but the emotional brain has had millions of years of information and experience to react to.’
The good news is that our thinking and behaviors can be rewired, and our brain can be trained for better performance – just like any other muscle. Just by increasing the level of awareness, our thinking will automatically become more focused. Attention itself is changing the brain by enforcing new connections; however, real and permanent change requires repetition (Ref 6.) If you care, you can change.
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits (Ref 7.), talks about the same thing. Forming of new habits is enabled by positive triggers and continuous repetition. However magnificent and ambitious plans we have for saving the environment and world, at the end of the day it’s boiling back down to what is actually done. Small concrete actions can enable us to learn and strengthen our rewiring – and eventually lead us to bigger change.
Clear defines this beautifully: your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. When our individual actions connect with a bigger purpose, we can get deeper rewards and fulfilment from longer-term lifestyle changes – not just the quick hype that quickly disappears. It is also comforting to know that small actions are just fine – bigger changes will follow once we start the journey. We can already see that the ‘norm’ is changing, and sustainable behavior matters more and more – even though there are still those who don’t consider sustainability as a topic of interest and therefore don’t hold themselves accountable for the change that would be needed.
Better thinking generates better life
Rational thinking is enabled by easy access to reliable data. This is becoming even more important since greenwashing is evident and gives a further excuse for those claiming that change is too difficult, and information cannot be trusted.
A good intent can sometimes have a negative impact when complex systemic changes and tricky dependencies are discussed in a way that makes regular consumers feel overwhelmed and confused – and not feel accountable. We cannot ignore the need for more holistic and challenging discussion and problem-solving but at the same time finding out ways to simplify our daily decision-making in the context of consumption is critical. Based on the surveys simple guidance and more concrete advice are needed; this is where producers, retailers, and public sector actors all play a key role – particularly related to recycling and circular economy enablers there is still a lot that needs to be done.
Independent assessments are good examples of this; simple labels like Fairtrade, EU Ecolabel, Joutsenmerkki help us to choose products that are more sustainably produced. Company sustainability and circular assessments are also important as long as they are performed by independent and respected actors following a reliable assessment framework. For example, Taival and WWF co-developed a Circular Economy Rating that helps companies understand how they are performing compared to their circularity targets and provides insights and suggestions for improvement. In many cases this is also common sense since paying attention to our consumption will also help us to live a more economically sound life (e.g., saving electricity or taking different actions to avoid food waste).
Regardless of the different challenges we face, our thoughts and thinking can pave the way for action and enable us to become what we wish to be and achieve the change we want to see. As Finnish philosopher, Esa Saarinen says: ‘better thinking generates better life’. This is an investment we all can make and be accountable for.
Ref 1. Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Ref 2. Consumer Sustainability Survey 2022 (lek.com)
The L.E.K. Consumer Sustainability Survey analyses consumer attitudes in the UK, US and Australia, looking to understand consumers’ opinions and purchasing behaviours in relation to sustainability.
Ref 3. Getting back on track (mckinsey.com)
Ref 4. Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2022 | Deloitte UK
Ref 5. Peter Hollins, Brain Blunders: p.211-221 and 145 with reference to Robert Cialdini’s 6 keys to persuasion
Ref 6. David Rock, our Brain at Work: 224-226).
Ref 7. James Clear, Atomic Habits