49.1 Environmental education and pro-environmental consumer behaviour – Results of a university survey

Ágnes Zsóka , Department of Environmental Economics and Technology, Corvinus University of Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Zsuzsanna Marjainé Szerényi , Department of Environmental Economics and Technology, Corvinus University of Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Anna Széchy , Department of Environmental Economics and Technology, Corvinus University of Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
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  • The paper summarises findings of research carried out by the Department of Environmental Economics and Technology at Corvinus University of Budapest (CUB) in Autumn, 2008. The survey focuses on the pro-environmental consumer behaviour and lifestyle patterns of 350 university students and their relationship to environmental education.

    Main assumptions of the research:

    (1) Impacts of environmental education are reflected in consumer behaviour of students: those studying environmental subjects more intensively are more environmentally conscious in their actions. Five groups of students with distinct features regarding environmental knowledge background and motivations were surveyed.

    (2) Courses on sustainability and environmental issues offered by the university significantly enlarge students’ environmental knowledge base – however, their attitudes are shaped by several other factors, which are also important issues of the analysis.

    (3) Reported environmental behaviour and actual environmental awareness of respondents are usually not consistent. The survey contains several control questions to test the consistency of respondents’ answers. The trend is obvious: students tend to overstate their environmental awareness opposed to their real actions.

    Main results are summarised below.

    Asked about environmental problems, students mentioned several relevant issues; they reported their environmental knowledge to have improved significantly mainly because of university education. Active seeking of environmental information is characteristic for senior students with environmental specialisation. These students listed significantly more environmental aspects which should be taken into account during shopping or other individual activities, but they reported to apply these aspects to a different extent in their everyday life. An obvious gap could be observed between knowledge about environmental problems and actual behaviour.

    Respondents consider lack of opportunities, convenience, and financial reasons as barriers to pursue a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Consumer decisions are reported to be mostly influenced by quality and price of the product or service, followed by the aspects of availability, fashion, and lastly environment protection. Specialised students tend to include environmental issues into their decision making to a significantly higher extent than others. A higher level of consumption is restricted mainly by lack of money and time, but several respondents mentioned satisfaction with the current level of their consumption. Environmental considerations were only important for specialised students.

    To describe the habits regarding everyday environmental activities and lifestyle, seven factors were identified by a factor analysis.

    1. Hedonistic consumer behaviour: This factor includes main features related to consumer society such as shopping as a form of amusement, consumption of clothes, cosmetics, keeping pace with fashion and technological trends, being tempted by promotions, and buying things even if they are not necessary.
    2. Environmental activist behaviour: Environmental volunteer actions (e.g. cleaning parks), as well as participation at environmental demonstrations belong to this factor.
    3. Increase of knowledge basis: Activities like browsing environment-related websites, reading environmental books or journals, visiting environmental conferences are relevant here.
    4. Consumption of sporting equipment and electronic devices: This factor includes the activities of its title.
    5. Supporting environmental organisations means membership in, or financial support of environmental organisations.
    6. Good housekeeping involves turning off the lights when leaving the room and turning off the computer when not in use.
    7. Not leaving electronic devices on stand-by

    Based on the identified factors, respondents were grouped into five clusters (using Ward method):

    Cluster 1: Sport and electronic device fans (120 students) buy these items significantly more frequently than others. Not surprisingly, two third of all male respondents belong to this cluster. Other hedonistic consumer patterns are not really characteristic for this group, but they spend relatively more money on consumer goods (excluding food and housing) than the average. Following fashion and technological trends are an important motivation in their consumer behaviour. They use their car beside public transport, and they seem not at all influenced by environmental aspects in their consumer behaviour or lifestyle.

    Cluster 2: Knowledge-oriented modest students (42 respondents) are characterised by their intensive information seeking habits related to the environment. They are modest in their consumption and lifestyle, consuming the least in the sample. They reported to only buy goods which they truly need. On the other hand, they are not at all interested in the activity of environmental organisations. Members of this cluster are mainly students specialising in the environmental field. They were able to mention several environmental problems and environmental aspects relating to consumer/everyday behaviour, and appear to lead an environmentally conscious life.

    Cluster 3: Consumption-oriented students (128 respondents) show a quite hedonistic value system, as they enjoy shopping, follow fashion trends, and like to spend on clothes and cosmetics. The majority of them are female, not specialising in environmental issues in their studies. They seem not to care about the environment, either in information seeking, or in activist behaviour, and consider environmental aspects in their everyday life significantly less than the average.

    Cluster 4: Environmental activists (16 students) are often members of environmental organisations and are eager to take part in demonstrations and volunteer activities. This attitude is also reflected in their lifestyle, as they are engaged in composting, cycling, walking, minimising waste, saving water and energy etc. Their consumption level, however, is around the sample average. Their pro-environmental behaviour is most probably based on affective motivations, as they are not keen on increasing their environmental knowledge. Fourth- and fifth-year students with environmental specialisation are well overrepresented in this group.

    Cluster 5: Environmentally aware students (15 respondents) consume significantly less than the average. They appear unaffected by promotion and marketing tools, buying goods according to their needs. They occasionally participate in environmental demonstrations without being members or supporters of environmental organisations. They were able to mention several environmental problems and environment-related consumer and lifestyle patterns (significantly more than the average). Interestingly, they reported to have everything they need while they spend less than the average on consumer goods.

    As can be seen above, the findings of our research can be used to describe environment-related consumer behaviour of students and to reveal the main underlying reasons, as well as for evaluating the effectiveness of environmental education and identifying the main points for improvement.