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Conceptual knowledge about green products and cognitive skills for choosing them varies across the different consumers. Differently complex and sophisticated systems of sensibility exist for the respective cognitive categories regarding how to define and assess the greenness of a product. Differences across the cognitive categories can be related to the idea that their members are involved in different types of practical thinking.
How a person makes a consumption choice hints at what was perceived as available and possible in a certain situation (Grafton-Small 1993; Campbell 1989). The construction of reality through practical thinking is limited by the way the world is perceived. Such perception develops in line with a person’s consumption history: “We must always do with a finite set of tools and materials, including concepts, which is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it” (Grafton-Small 1993, p. 42). Persons are bound to speak through the behavioral choices they made. Over time experience builds up, and hence, the quality of practical thinking and problem solving is likely to rise.
This paper aims to find whether information availability (both internal and external) is of a highly subjective – that is whether a person who is aware of the benefits of green products actually purchases goods that are perceived to be green.
Besides its very subjective outlook, the reasoning of the green consumer reflects a highly contextual orientation. The ability to exploit information from the shopping situation in terms of what information could be used for green decision making increases across the cognitive categories: depending upon what kind of knowledge a person brought to a choice situation, information perception and green decision making varies (Gordon and Valentine 1996; Warlop and Ratneshwar 1993; Ratneshwar and Shocker 1988; Jenkins 1977). Across the cognitive categories, different types of practical thinking can be found. They reflect an increase in the quality of practical thinking across the cognitive categories:
• Pragmatism. One of the types of practical thinking identified is labeled pragmatism by Wagner (1996b). It refers to an acceptance of the complexities of green shopping without trying to solve them in their entirety, but only where this can be comparatively easily achieved. Pragmatism can be said to be an enlightened cognitive approach to green shopping. It is especially widespread amongst the higher cognitive categories (Wagner 1996a; Wagner 1997).
• Naivety. Another mode of practical thinking is called naivety by Warlop and Ratneshwar (1993). Certain information is ‘believed’ in, but not really understood. Behavior is based on a ‘real’ illusion; for example, slogans like ‘environmentally friendly’, symbols like a ‘little green tree’, or the color of a packaging, e.g. blue-green, are taken as an indication of a product’s greenness. A naive approach to green shopping appears to be particularly widespread amongst cognitive category. For instance, consumers of this category focus nearly exclusively on green names rather than other product attributes for choosing a green product (Warlop and Ratneshwar 1993; Prothero 1990).
• Cynicism. A ‘mechanism’ for unsuccessful green problem solving, preventing practical thinking, is cynicism by Wild (1995). Activity levels of green shopping behavior are negatively affected by views such as knowing too much about green shopping and its effectiveness. It appears that once a consumer has realized the naivety of initial ideas about green shopping and began to understand some of the ‘scientific’ complexities of green shopping, confusion set in and ‘blinded consumers’ (Wild 1995). This is especially apparent for members of the middle cognitive categories. Confusion seems to be resolved in two ways over time, either by pragmatism (and a move towards the higher cognitive categories) or by cynicism (and a move towards stagnation or towards the lower cognitive categories). As indicated by Wild (1995), for some consumers cynicism may prevent further green shopping behavior.
• Ignorance. Another mechanism for unsuccessful green problem solving is named ignorance by Cope and Winward (1991): not knowing and not wanting to know about green shopping. Through ignorance, consumers avoid green shopping issues. Ignorance cuts short drastically even the attempt to begin practical thinking: there is no attempt to formulate a green shopping problem, mainly due to low motivation regarding green shopping (Cope and Winward 1991).
Also, as reported by Parker (1999), these different types of practical thinking reflect different modes of illusion. Pragmatism and naivety has an enabling effect on practical thinking of the green shopping problem. In contrast, cynicism and ignorance has a disabling effect on actual green consumer behavior. Pragmatism, naivety, cynicism and ignorance are apparent in all cognitive categories but in rather different degrees: as indicated, ignorance seems to be particularly widespread for the bottom cognitive categories, as is pragmatism for the higher cognitive categories; naivety and cynicism seems to be more prevalent in the middle cognitive categories.
These ways of practical thinking do not solely relate to cognitive levels. They are connected to motivational levels, which are excluded from the research reported in this paper. It is likely that successful green shopping is ultimately enabled or prevented by a combination of motivational, cognitive and behavioral factors.
In a broad sense, methodology can be defined as “the process, principles, and procedures by which we approach problems and seek answers” (Bogdan and Taylor 1975, p. 1). In this sense the research questions of this paper are methodological questions in so far as green consumers are investigated as theorists with regard to the methodology they apply for developing hypotheses on environmentally oriented shopping.
In science, methodology refers to the way a conceptual or empirical investigation is structured in order to advance the growth of (scientific) knowledge. Methodological principles guide such an investigation. Methodology decisions on how to structure empirical research are closely intertwined with the conceptual approach taken for tackling a certain research problem.
This paper aims to discover whether actual behavior, as reflected by familiarity, plays an important role in successful green consumer behavior. It is important to find out if product-related familiarity is strongly reflected by membership in the higher cognitive categories. Furthermore, the goal is to discover whether the length of time involved in green shopping play a major role in purchasing the actual green product. Finally, we aim to determine whether a person who is aware of the benefits that green products have on the environment actually buy those types of goods considered to be green.
In the social sciences, the two main empirical research traditions are the quantitative approach that draws on techniques such as experiments, surveys, histories, analysis of archival information, etc., and the qualitative one that utilizes techniques such as case studies, participant observation, open interviews, etc. (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996; Creswell 1994; Patton 1990; Yin 1989; Day and Castleberry 1986; Vinehall 1979). The labels ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ research are interchangeable with notions like ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ research (Burrell and Morgan 1979). The quantitative approach tends to be related to logical positivism, the traditional empirical research paradigm of the natural sciences, while the idea of qualitative research relates to a phenomenological research tradition that originated in the social sciences (Myburgh-Louw and O’Shaughnessy (1993-4).
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Both the quantitative and the qualitative approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Their respective strengths and weaknesses can be discussed along three dimensions: external validity, reliability and precision. External validity (or ‘ecological validity’) refers to the possibility of generalizing findings on a researched population to other populations, ideally to populations as they can be found in the ‘real world’. External validity touches upon issues related to the relevance of research (Coolican 1990; Yin 1989). Reliability refers to the possibility that a study can be repeated by another researcher and yield the same results (Silverman 1993:145, Coolican 1990:34, Yin 1989:41, 45). Precision refers to the numerical accuracy that can be attributed to research findings. It relates to the quantitative significance of empirical research (Yin 1989:40-3).
Research design and methodology
The main purpose of this study is exploratory and hypothesis testing. We aim to select a sample population among college students and ask them three types of following questions:
a) Define what a green product is
(b) Identify green products from a list of common products (i.e. those they are likely to purchase)
(c) Describe the benefit of green products on the environment.
Note: these points should objectively confirm that the subject is aware of what constitutes a green product.
Next, we are going to ask these respondents to provide a list of items that they have purchased from the supermarket during one week. Ideally, all the subjects use the same supermarket and shopped during the same week: such condition will allow the sample to represent the control variables.
An investigator reviews all the items purchased per subject and asks the respondent, which of those he or she believes to be green products. The investigator, then, visits the supermarket and compares those items that are not believed to be ‘green products’ by the respondent to equivalent ‘green products’. If there are no equivalent ‘green products’, then it can be assumed that the subject ‘bought green’. If there are equivalent green products, it can be assumed that consumer’s decision to purchase this good was not impacted by the ‘green’ nature of the product. The study will be conducted through sending survey questions to selected college students
One of the main purposes of this study is also is to discover the knowledge content of a person’s mind. The questionnaire itself should attempt not to change existing knowledge but only to retrieve it. At the same time the problem of forgetting has to be dealt with; and here, the positive and negative effects of part listings have to be traded off. As a consequence of these considerations, some structure has to be imposed on the questionnaire’s structure (Patton 1990; Cohen 1989; Sampson 1986).
This study applies a question guide that divides the questionnaire into four parts: in the first part of the questionnaire, only open questions are asked and no part listings are used; in the second and third parts of the questionnaire, part listings are used; the fourth and final part conclude the questionnaire with a self-rating task and offers the subjects an opportunity to comment on further issues they wish to raise.
The first part of the questionnaire contains only open questions drawing on free recall. No specific items, either products or product attributes, are singled out for a subject to comment on. No part listings are used. Thus, the recall restraining effect of part listings is avoided, but the problem of forgetting is not dealt with. The retrieval of knowledge content on green shopping is organized around products rather than product attributes. For supermarket products, product-related cognitive processing rather than attribute-related processing has been found to be dominant; examples of products can be expected to be easily recalled by a respondent (Park et al. 1994). Hence, as a first step, green product examples are collected from a subject without the researchers asking as to why and how an individual had come to view a product as green (in terms of product attributes).
In the second part of the questionnaire, a part listing of products is used. Problems related to forgetting are reduced by this. The purpose of a part listing is to provide retrieval cues. Part 2 of the questionnaire requires the subject to perform a recognition task rather than a free recall task. Comprehensive product part listings are likely to contain more than forty product categories.
In part 3 of the questionnaire, a part listing is applied that comprises different types of information cues a consumer might have drawn upon to assess the greenness of a product. The part listing is constructed on the basis of the findings of the pilot studies and a literature review on consumer behavior (Peattie 1995). That kind of enquiry is put at the end of the questionnaire because of its higher potential to cause conclusions in recall. A general discussion of information related to the perceived greenness of a product is more prone to lead to inferences in recall.
In a final, fourth part, the questionnaire is concluded with a self-rating task. The person is asked for an overall self-assessment regarding the greenness of his or her shopping. On a scale ranging from zero to 100, people will have to rank themselves with regard to actual green consumption behavior. They are then given the opportunity to comment on any further issue they want to raise in relation to environmentally friendly consumption.
Questionnaires are focused on actual shopping experience: respondents are asked about their past shopping behavior. But this could mean rather different things in terms of actual buying frequencies: a certain green product may have been regularly bought; or it may have been only occasionally bought; or there may have been past trial behavior that was referred to in the respondent but that had actually not led to the adoption of a green product. Therefore, products as they are recalled by a subject are examined for actual buying frequencies. The purpose of this examination is to find out the extent to which a product which is recalled by an individual was actually bought or not bought. The ‘actual buying frequencies’ reflect the extent to which green products are bought and used in the past. On the basis of these frequency codes, the effects of certain experiences on knowledge structure development could be examined.
It might have been desirable to discriminate these frequency codes more strongly, but such discriminatory information is difficult to retrieve from the questionnaire data (Wright et al. 1994). The broad classifications and discriminations applied in this study appear to be sufficient for the purpose in hand of gaining some understanding of how much actual shopping experience existed in relation to a certain product. Subsequently the distribution of X, Y and Z products may be adjusted for actual buying frequencies.
An adjustment for actual buying frequencies may reveal that there is a difference between the number of green products freely remembered by a respondent and the number of green products that are regularly bought.
The positional relation between the parameters mean and median changes as a result of an adjustment for actual buying frequencies. This indicates that distributions ‘lost’ more at their bottom ends than at their top ends because of the adjustment for actual buying frequencies. The same is basically indicated by the way minimum and maximum values of distributions changes because of the adjustments. An examination of quartiles of the respective distributions should be conducted to clarify whether actual buying frequencies are proportionally higher at the top end of the distribution than at its lower end. If this is the case, it would mean that those subjects who knew many green products also actually bought them with a relatively higher frequency than students who knew fewer green products and who bought these fewer examples relatively less frequently.
Such a relatively higher actual buying frequency of respondents at the top end of the distribution could be interpreted as a kind of higher ‘behavioral consistency’ and would have implications for a later assessment of experience effects, in particular in relation to familiarity effects.
Conclusion and summary
This study aims to discover whether actual behavior, as reflected by familiarity, plays an important role in successful green consumer behavior. We aim to find out if product-related familiarity is strongly reflected by membership in the higher cognitive categories. Furthermore, the goal is to discover whether the length of time involved in green shopping play a major role in purchasing the actual green product. Finally, we aim to determine whether a person who is aware of the benefits that green products have on the environment actually buy those types of goods considered to be green. Findings on certain habits of green consumers will indicate whether familiarity with green products is consciously recognized and rationally controlled.
In terms of practical thinking, the green consumer exhibit intelligent behavior to a substantial degree. It seems that extensive product-oriented familiarity, an ability for pragmatic green problem solving as well as high motivation (which is only indirectly touched upon by this study) relates to a high level of knowledge structure development. Each of these three factors can be considered necessary for membership in the higher cognitive categories, but none of them appears to be sufficient on its own. Apparently, knowledge structure development (learning) relates to a number of interconnected factors. Whether the idea of causality as the underlying buying principle for cognitive research should be given up is an open question. Also, consumption, like most everyday behavior, is of a personal-historical nature—reflecting experience. An understanding of historical processes of how motivation, cognition and behavior are interconnected may be difficult to reconcile with the causality principle.
Naive approaches to green consumption are more widespread in the lower cognitive categories. Initial ignorance regarding green shopping seems to be first replaced by naivety: the greenness of a product is assessed by using information like slogans, names, labels, etc. Once a naive approach is recognized, confusion may set in. Over time, confusion may be replaced either by cynicism regarding green shopping, which has a negative impact on actual behavior, or by a pragmatic approach to green shopping, which has a positive impact on behavior.
The patterns of practical thinking that are found for successful green consumer behavior will or will not reflect a strong contextual orientation. The findings will reveal whether knowledge is developed and applied through actual behavior in a certain context. Depending on what kind of problem a researcher is looking into, a different concept of what constitutes a green product emerges, e.g. being viewed as the output of an industrial process, a status symbol, etc. For understanding consumer behavior in the everyday world—how a product is assessed and chosen—products are probably best understood as a contextual system of sensibility which is subjectively constructed through practical thinking and knowledge.