sustainable shopping

How To Shop Sustainably & The Psychology Behind It

In the past few years, have you adopted some form of eco-friendly practice or sustainable shopping habit? Whether it’s purchasing a reusable water bottle or using ethically sourced coffee. As a collective, our society is experiencing increasing environmental and social awareness. Yet, it may seem that so few people have taken an interest or action in applying sustainability to their daily lives.

For those who have committed to the conscious lifestyle, you may find it frustrating as to why. While we can’t force a particular way of life onto someone, we can examine what makes people develop one lifestyle over another. Furthermore, we can explore how sustainable living can positively affect our brain chemistry and decision-making with the help of psychology.




The Psychology of Sustainability

In the report, Psychology of Sustainability: Understanding and Encouraging a Sustainable Lifestyle, Bryana Leverentz delves into the relationship between humans and their environment, unraveling the motivations that drive individuals toward a more sustainable way of life. The report emphasizes our previous existence, living harmoniously with the natural world, but as society became more developed and complex, we became further removed. As our environment changed, so did our decision-making and our lifestyle.

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What drives us toward sustainability comprises two concepts, as described by Leverentz: one of the self and one of our external experience. The Psychology of Sustainability analyzes our inner decision-making process, “[exploring] how and why people make sustainable choices while also looking at the impact sustainable decisions have on people’s mental health and well-being,” she states. Meanwhile, sustainable development focuses on creating the necessary infrastructure to facilitate environmentally friendly and sustainable living.

According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, free will is our ability to control our actions. While we do have the capability to make our own choices, which dictate the kind of lives we live, we are also intrinsically motivated by our external environment. Our brain makes many of our daily decisions on autopilot to be more efficient, meaning we innately follow the path of least resistance. Because we live in a consumer society, our decisions lead more towards overconsumption and convenient, unsustainable choices. Understanding how we make decisions and what influences them is the first step to a more conscious lifestyle.


Our Decision-Making Process

Let’s dive deeper into our internal decision-making process. Leverentz identifies decisions as either rule-based or associative. Think left brain, right brain. Rule-based decisions are more thought out, involve logic, and assess all possible scenarios. In contrast, associative is more of an impulsive or quick decision based on feelings. For example, you have an upcoming event and need to find a formal outfit. Your rule-based process makes you consider your sustainable shopping options: renting, borrowing from a friend, making your own, etc. You realize your outfit will be meaningful, and you may even save money this way. Your associative process would want you to just go to the mall to buy something because it’s convenient and less work. Leverentz explains that sustainability resides at the center of these two processes. However, to make associative decisions more sustainable, we must consider how our environment fosters those choices.

There are several hypotheses discussed in Leverentz’s report that examine the external influences that motivate a person’s decision-making. The Theory of Planned Behavior looks at influences such as subjective norms, personal attitude, and perceived control (i.e., free will). This theory applies external influences to our intentions and behaviors. Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis investigates the difference between conscious and unconscious decision-making processes. Freud’s theory emphasizes that decision-making is not basic, but rather internal and external factors play a role in the choices we make without us even realizing it.

Society, social media, and community are external pressures that affect our decision-making whether we know it or not. Living in a capitalistic system, media promoting materialistic lifestyles, and disconnected neighborhoods are all elements that make unsustainable living the norm. As we grow up, we observe and accept this way of being because it is all we know. If we shift towards a shared economy, be more intentional about the media we consume, and find ways to build community, we could make sustainable living more achievable presently and for future generations. However, we must approach sustainable living with humility. Accessibility plays a significant role in how we live. Not everyone can live a sustainable lifestyle due to limitations such as costs, living situations, education, etc.


Sustainability and Brain Chemistry

While we may not have complete control of our decisions, self and external awareness can help shift our mindset over time. Leverentz references behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s speech, Why Are We Not Saving The World? and identifies that our habits are essentially caused by positive and negative reinforcement. When we make positive, more sustainable decisions for ourselves and the environment, it causes a ripple effect of more positive impact.

In the past, we’ve discussed how retail therapy can give off dopamine from the addicting illusion of anticipation and reward. However, did you know that living more sustainably can also alter your brain chemistry and give the same, if not more, satisfaction? A study conducted by psychologist Annamarie Di Fabio in 2017 found a positive correlation between people’s overall well-being and being in a sustainably developed environment.

“There is benefit in being a more inclusive and positive community rather than focusing on the absence of things that are negative and harmful,” says Leverentz.

This aligns with the rule-based and associative decision-making process example discussed earlier. Being more intentional about what’s in our closet and how we consume is more rewarding than giving in to fast fashion and overconsumption.


Creating a Sustainable Shopping Lifestyle

Sustainability has many interpretations, but it is most widely recognized as the ability to maintain something over an extended period. Leverentz states in her report that it is not only about avoiding the depletion of resources but also proactively protecting the planet with our actions and decisions. In this article, we’ve highlighted how internal and external factors impact our choices to live sustainably. Consequently, our sustainable lifestyle is at the intersection of these influences.

Living a life of intention and quality is a rewarding and fulfilling experience. So, with what’s in your control, how can you leverage these effects to achieve sustainable living? First, you can reflect internally on your decision-making patterns. Analyze what your lifestyle was like growing up and if it supported or promoted sustainable choices. Be aware of your routines and notice areas where you can implement sustainable habits. Leverage the internet and organizations like Remake to educate yourself on sustainability areas you’re interested in. Then, practice self-discipline by committing to your new way of life by consciously making more responsible choices.

“There is benefit in being a more inclusive and positive community rather than focusing on the absence of things that are negative and harmful,” – Bryana Leverentz

External factors are also supporting the environmental and social movement. Governments are enacting policies that hold brands accountable, simplifying the decision-making process and making sustainability the standard. Organizations are helping to inform consumers through rating platforms like Remake’s Accountability Report and Good on You. Businesses are making sustainable choices more accessible through their product offering. People are gathering under common interests to create communities that shift mindsets over time. There is still a long way to go in making sustainable living more equitable and transparent, but we are making significant strides in raising awareness and producing systemic change.


Engaging Others In Sustainability

Actively choosing to live more sustainably can feel alienating at times. Especially around the holiday season and summer vacation plans, you may be surrounded by friends or family who don’t align with your beliefs. We can’t force someone to value the same things we do, but we can introduce a new perspective that invites them to think differently. Here are some tips from Leverentz and How to Use Psychology for Sustainability and Climate Justice by the American Psychological Association on ways you can get people to care about sustainability and the impact of their decisions.

sustainable shopping

First and foremost, steer clear of eco-shaming or putting people down for not being environmentally responsible. This may make the person defensive or less receptive. Try to phrase sustainability in ways that add to or enhance someone’s lifestyle instead of taking away. Also, know your stuff! Ensure you are educated on what you are discussing and leverage technology to share information. Be sure to use reputable sources. Try to reconnect people with the environment by understanding their unique identity and how sustainability can lead into that. Encourage them to make small incremental changes. Lastly, leverage the power of community. Invite people to sustainability talks or Remake events, suggest they vote with their wallets by supporting sustainable brands or engage them in the #NoNewClothes pledge. Remember to have empathy and recognize that sustainable living is not easy for everyone.

In our journey through examining psychology and sustainability, we’ve navigated the complexities of our decision-making processes, explored the external influences that shape our choices, and discovered the profound impact that adopting a sustainable lifestyle can have on our brain chemistry. Ultimately, sustainability is a collective endeavor, and our individual choices ripple through society and the environment. By supporting systemic change, making informed choices, and building communities that champion sustainability, we are collectively paving the way toward a world where conscious living is not just a choice but a way of life for all.


Want to Live More Sustainably? Take Remake’s #NoNewClothes Challenge and Change The Way You Interact With Fashion!

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