How to Make Sustainability Stick for Consumers, According to a Psychologist

How to Make Sustainability Stick for Consumers, According to a Psychologist

For any brand, editor or influencer who's invested in making fashion a more sustainable industry, figuring out how to talk about environmental concerns in a way that actually inspires people to take action can be tricky.

According to Dr. Daniel L. Benkendorff, an associate professor of philosophy at FIT whose classes focus on psychology, the problem with translating sustainability concerns into action has little to do with a lack of awareness of the problem.

"Large surveys suggest that most people are aware of climate change and environmental degradation on some level," he said on Tuesday at FIT's annual Sustainable Business and Design Conference in New York City. "About 70 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, and about the same number believe it will cause harm to future generations of people and to other species."

And while that awareness has translated into some widespread behavioral modification — like the fact that recycling paper and plastic has become commonplace — it hasn't made a big enough dent in human contributions to global warming. 

So if we know we're killing the planet we're living on, why won't we stop? According to Benkendorff, part of the problem arises from the fact that news about climate change creates the "wrong kind of fear." Unlike the action-inducing fight or flight mode aroused by obviously immediate danger, climate change's slower pace is more likely to cause a slow burn of anxiety, which Benkendorff says "isn't so helpful" and may lead to denial or other coping mechanisms, rather than action.

For ethical fashion advocates, that means that communicating a message of hope, rather than despair, is important for inspiring consumer action.

"This doesn't involve lying about climate change or avoiding the truth, but when you talk about climate change... it's important to talk about the possibility of solving it," Benkendorff said.

Beyond highlighting the potential for solutions to the climate change problem, Benkendorff offered two other pieces of advice for those seeking to inspire more sustainable lifestyles in their customers, readers or general spheres of influence. One was to encourage them to seek out like-minded people — a move that fulfills the deep human need for connection as well as making individual activism efforts more effective.

"Find your community and act locally," he advised. "There's an avalanche of psychological research that tells us that human beings work better together than in isolation… If you can join a group, you'll feel like you're getting something done."

Finally, Benkendorff said it's important to start with small changes. Maybe a consumer won't completely adopt sustainable shopping habits overnight, but encouraging them to take one step — like learning to thrift or seeking out organic cotton — can start a chain reaction in their life.

"We want to change all of our bad behaviors all at once, and that's unproductive, because it's really hard," he said. "Try one small change, and reward yourself when you do better. If you can do that, you can move onto the next change."

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