live sustainably

From hotel receptionist to researching what motivates people to live sustainably

Reading time: 10 minutes

This interview has been translated from Dutch to English and was originally published via Guusje Nagels from Idea-list.com on the 17th of January 2021 under the title: “Marleen IJsselmuiden over consumentenpsychologie en duurzaam gedrag”.

Marleen IJsselmuiden has specialized in consumer psychology. As part of her MSc in Marketing and Consumer Behavior, she executed a large research centered around the question why many people claim preserving our planet is crucial, yet the vast majority of those same people fail to act upon this vision. It’s a phenomenon that scientists call the ‘green attitude-behavior gap’. Marleen has immersed herself in mountains of academic research regarding the barriers people encounter when they try to live sustainably, as well as the factors contributing to a ‘green’ lifestyle. She also conducted 15 in-depth interviews to understand why some people did in fact choose for a complete overhaul of their lifestyle, for example by choosing to become vegan or changing their purchase and/or travel behavior. Marleen recently started her own company, Grounding Green, in which she combines her knowledge of consumer psychology and business with the climate crisis.

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND AND WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN SUSTAINABILITY?

I studied Hospitality Management at a small University of Applied Sciences a number of years ago. Through my part-time jobs as a hotel receptionist, I got to know people from cultures from all over the world. I did a traineeship with the team responsible for the marketing of a large number of Dutch Hilton hotels in my third year. Thanks to that experience, I found my interest in marketing. I have always been a pretty creative person myself, and I could pour my creativity into this discipline. I wished to gain additional work experience as a marketeer and that’s how I ended up at a corporate law firm. It was a great training ground, but after two years it became evident to me that my heart wasn’t in it. Therefore, I decided to continue my studies and so I started a master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam. That’s where I focused on consumer behavior and marketing. I am totally fascinated by how people think and how certain behavior comes about, I could totally dig into that.

“I am totally fascinated by how people think and how certain behavior comes about”

Besides that, I have always been concerned with sustainability and animal welfare, I was a pretty stubborn child. When I was eight years old I wanted to become a vegetarian, but my mother wouldn’t let me. I then went on a ‘hunger strike’ and made sure that she came around. When I made the switch to veganism two years ago, the ball really started rolling for me. I became increasingly interested in sustainability and the things I could do to make a positive impact on our planet.

WHAT DO YOU WISH TO ACCOMPLISH WITH GROUNDING GREEN?

I would like to help both companies and consumers with my own business. Many people operating in the field of sustainability believe that capitalism is ‘evil’. I don’t necessarily see it that way. I believe that a cash incentive can also bring about a lot of good, but it must be regulated. That’s the government’s job in my opinion. Sustainable companies can inspire large groups of people. That’s why I’d like to help organizations with their positioning around sustainability, so that they can appeal to the right kind of people with their authentic stories. Having said that, I absolutely do not want to contribute to greenwashing. I choose to help companies that are genuinely motivated to do something with sustainability. If they’re not completely there, that’s OK, I can then advise them about the next steps they can take.

“I believe that sustainability starts at the level of the consumer”

I also believe that sustainability starts at the level of the consumer. There are many people who point their fingers at multinationals and billionaires and shake off their own responsibilities this way. I then think: companies like Amazon can only become big if we buy something from them. It’s easy to put the blame on somebody else, but I think that we must take our own responsibility.

WHAT IS NEEDED FOR A SUSTAINABLE CHANGE IN BEHAVIOR?

There must be some sort of breeding ground before people start taking steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Many factors turned out to be influential in my own research. I divided them into three categories: personality characteristics, lifestyle, and the external environment. These categories have then been further split into 23 subcategories. I’ll outline a few of them, but please remember that these are just a few examples.

For example, there are certain personality characteristics that matter. You need to be open to gaining new experiences and curious by nature. You must also dare to step outside your own comfort zone. Furthermore, you need to be under the impression that you can actually do it and that you can make a difference. Scientists call this self-efficacy. The will to change is important to persevere. A small act today, is a big act tomorrow.

In addition to this, a supporting and encouraging environment makes a large difference. Not everyone around you needs to be cheering you on, but it sure is important that you feel safe enough to change. It’s a human need to be connected to others, so it’s quite intense if you’re doing this by yourself entirely while no one understands. It works better if you know someone that’s also concerned with sustainability, or if the people around you respect it at the very least. Unfortunately, some of my respondents encountered resistance from their surroundings. In that case, you really have to go on sheer willpower.

"A supporting environment makes a large difference"

All these components together start to simmer. At a certain moment in time, you then encounter a clear trigger, such as new information or social pressure to act differently. Information is important, because if you have no idea about the climate problem or what happens in factory farming, then there is no motivation to eat less meat for instance. Without information, there is no necessity.

However, information can only carry you so far. A decision is ultimately made at the level of emotion. There are a lot of scientists who claim that information is actually not important at all, but on the basis of what I found, I disagree with this. Information is that which initially ‘reassures’ a consumer to be open to change at an emotional level.

Such a trigger basically holds up a mirror. This is the point where you need to make a choice; what are you going to do with the new information you received? Once the decision has been made to act differently, people usually start with baby steps. Do you start by replacing cow’s milk in your coffee with rice or oat milk? Or do you take the decision to go on a city trip by train instead of taking an airplane? Every small change contributes to a larger whole.

However, not everyone starts out by taking small steps. Some respondents for example decided to quit eating meat overnight and kept to it. This depends on the type of motivation a person has. I defined four of those in my research. People who value social cohesion are more likely to take baby steps than those who commit to change from a strong sense of ideology. In addition, there are unfortunately also people who go at it from an egocentric motive (“look at me being all eco-friendly!”).

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST SURPRISING FINDING OF YOUR RESEARCH?

There are so many of those, but a very striking one that I did not see coming was one within the external environment bracket, namely the influence of traumatic life experiences. My research showed that people who have been traumatized at one point in their lives, are more likely to embark on a sustainability journey than those who did not. Traumatized people fall flat on their faces much sooner and are literally forced to self-reflect. Because of this, they are often more open to reviewing their own lifestyle. I think that’s where it originates.

WHY DO YOU THINK MOST OF US CONSUME MORE THAN NECESSARY?

People continually compare themselves to each other. Hence if the people around you consider it normal to buy a few new T-shirts each month and to go on holiday by plane three times a year, then this acts as a kind of free pass to do the same. Research also shows that the moment your choices are public, you take different decisions than if no one would know. People usually act more sustainably with social control.

Moreover, there is a (cor)relation between consumerism and (un)happiness. A correlation doesn’t indicate a causal link. That means that I don’t know if consumption literally leads to reduced happiness or if people are already unhappy and therefore start consuming more to numb painful emotions. Whatever the case, consumption equals unhappiness. It’s running away from something. When you buy something new, the neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’ gets released; a chemical that belongs to the brain’s reward system. That gives you a nice feeling and a quick pleasure boost, but the problem is that it disappears just as quickly as it arrived. That’s why we need increasing amounts of it to ultimately get the same feeling.

“There’s a connection between consumerism and (un)happiness”

I think that many people are actually not so happy with themselves at the core and have developed unhealthy patterns as a result. Many people take their unhappy feelings out on consumption and for instance constantly purchase new clothes to feel more self-assured.

On the other hand, it also happens that people flee into sustainability, and this becomes an obsession. In such cases, people allow themselves nothing at all anymore, thereby completely discounting their own happiness. No one can keep up with that, and this is also not the purpose. The source of this issue often lies in the individual’s upbringing. For example, when parents have unintentionally paid too little attention to the emotional development of the child, self-esteem, and love are constantly sought outwardly. However, it will never be found this way, because the problem hasn’t been tackled at the root. Our consumer society that constantly dictates that a person isn’t good enough without product X obviously also plays a part in this. When someone learns to be in balance with themselves and their own nature, healthy, balanced sustainable behavior automatically follows suit.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE TODAY’S CONSUMER?

I believe that man is inherently good. I think that we all have a positive nucleus, but many people have gotten damaged thanks to external circumstances. We have normalized a lot of things that aren’t actually normal: for instance, we have few boundaries and it has become the norm to be continually getting ahead of yourself. It has become the standard so much that we often don’t even recognize it ourselves anymore. I think that many people are afraid to be making the wrong choices in this day and age and therefore continuously monitor what others are doing.

“I think that many people are afraid to be making the wrong choices in this day and age and therefore continuously monitor what others are doing.”

Additionally, many people are fighting for their own identity. That’s what you see very prominently in the debate between farmers and vegans for example. The vegan says: “things have to be different” (unfortunately often in a pretty aggressive way) and the farmer thinks: “are you going to tell me now that I have worked my entire life to destroy the Earth?”. That’s when you reach a stalemate, because neither of them is prepared to give in. I see an enormous polarization emerging, but I believe that everyone has the same needs at heart. We all need someone to confide in, we all want to feel seen. It’s not all that black-and-white.

WHAT DO YOU THINK CAUSES PEOPLE TO OFTEN BEHAVE DEFENSIVELY WHEN THEY’RE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR NON-SUSTAINABLE BEHAVIOR?

There are an awful lot of people who lack self-confidence. The moment you take something ‘away’ from them, for example by saying: it’s better for the environment to fly less or to eat less meat, then the foundation they built around themselves gets destabilized. It’s a wall of certainty to protect the ego. I think that this is an unconscious pattern in people.

Brené Brown, professor and researcher at the University of Houston, already described that people with a ‘weak spine’ often express themselves in a harsh and insensitive fashion out of fear. By contrast, people with a strong spine actually do have the ability to let more things in and to remain open to other opinions.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THE DEFENSIVENESS OF OTHERS?

I love to give my two cents, but only when asked for it. There is no point in forcing people, because this effort only backfires. They get fearful and a stress response is always twofold: there’s a fight or flight response. People either flee or start fighting. When people get defensive, this is a fight response. That’s when you don’t reach someone at all anymore. That penny dropped for me at some point and I then saw that it wasn’t effective what I had been doing up until then. By pointing out where people’s behavior was out of line, I chased them away.

“When people get defensive, they display a fight response. That’s when you don’t reach them anymore.”

At the same time, I’m also not an advocate for remaining passive. I think that it’s very important to keep pointing out where it hurts. Something really has to change, for example, what’s happening in industrial farming is totally brutal and I won’t keep my mouth shut regarding this topic. Yet I only speak my truth if I’m under the impression that there’s an actual point in talking to someone about it. It doesn’t do much good to try to hit a brick wall. Pick your battles. That’s where I stand momentarily.

HOW CAN YOU STAND YOUR OWN GROUND, REMAIN POSITIVE AND STILL MAKE SUSTAINABLE CHOICES?

Because I previously worked as a marketeer, I know all about what companies are doing to influence consumers. I am also not immune to this and I think we’re all susceptible. The only thing that we can do, is to try to keep recognizing our own pitfalls.

“95% of the choices we make are based on emotions and subconscious processes. Only 5% of all decisions are made consciously.”

95% of the choices we make are based on emotions and subconscious processes. Only 5% of all decisions are made consciously. When you’re tired, you’re even more susceptible to all the tricks marketers are firing your way. Stressed out and tired people thus oftentimes live less sustainable lifestyles. That’s not only very damaging to our planet, but also to themselves. I try to show people that those two components are very closely intertwined. What doesn’t bring happiness to the world at large, also doesn’t add happiness to your own life.

That’s why I find becoming aware of your own patterns as a human being to be an important first step on the road to sustainable living. In my perception, it’s a step that is often skipped by most environmental activists. They never really question where the non-sustainable behavior of the other person is coming from. A person never does something bad ‘for no reason’, that behavior always stems from somewhere. Most people experience thousands of musings in their minds on a daily basis; not all of which are useful. Humans are the only species with the capacity not to be in the here and now. We’re constantly preoccupied with the past and with the future. I think that if you gain more insights into your own thoughts and feelings, you’ll start to experience more peace of mind from which the planet then also benefits. In other words: a win-win situation!

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