Increasing the sustainable consumption of mainstream consumers: through design and communication

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)


This thesis explores why some consumers buy sustainable options and others do not. As well as how this can be altered through targeted marketing communication and design. Sustainable intent is no guarantee for sustainable behaviour, but sustainable intent is also not a necessity for sustainable behaviour. It is the sustainable behaviour that counts. The reasons consumers buy energy-efficient vacuum cleaners makes this clear. Three out of four buyers of energy-efficient vacuum models did buy an energy-efficient vacuum cleaner for other reasons than environmental friendliness. They bought their energy efficient vacuum cleaner for the exact same reasons as those who bought an inefficient model. For neither shoes nor vacuum cleaners, sustainability is a primary buying criteria. On the contrary, there is a bias that sustainability comes at the cost of perceived quality, fashion image or performance. Only when all the main buying criteria are met, sustainability adds differentiation and value. This counts for both “feel” products (such as shoes and clothing) or “think” utilities (such as household appliances and utilities). The highest willingness to buy the sustainable shoe has been reported when the communicated benefit was on personal relevance combined with a green design.

Sustainability and the environmental impact of a product is, for most consumers, abstract and distal. More abstract than the present need which will be solved with the new acquisition. It is also hard, if not impossible, for a layman to compare the environmental costs of product alternatives. Results of comparisons are often context dependent and counter intuitive, which may reduce green trust. To make sustainable products attractive to mainstream consumers, it is necessary, like in mainstream marketing, to focus communication and design on the consumers’ main buying criteria. Deliver sustainability but focus the products’ message and design on the general relevance and needs of the customer or user. Communicating sustainable products is most effective when personal benefits are combined with a linked sustainable benefit such as a health or energy cost reduction. Presenting the energy-efficiency of appliances as a result of broader technological advantages is more effective in creating sustainable purchases than emphasising the communication on the products’ environmental friendliness.
Design should and can counter the bias and negative performance perceptions of sustainability. Consumers perceive the smaller energy-efficient motors in appliances often as less robust and powerful than energy-inefficient ones. Design can counter this perceived underperformance of sustainability with additional volume and weight which both have only a minor effect on the environmental cost. Sustainable utilities should perform as well and still look robust and powerful as less sustainable variants. Sustainable shoes without leather should be also just as comfortable, breathable and fashionable.

Unfortunately, the study after recommendations of buyers of sustainable vacuum cleaners showed sustainable buyers are less positive in their recommendations compared to those who bought unsustainable versions. This makes owners of energy-efficient appliances ineffective in promoting sustainable alternatives, increasing green trust or changing social norms. Differences in satisfaction ratings are not caused by the differences in the energy efficiency of the products but by the differences in the products’ perceived performance, ease of use and value for money. These are all independent of the input power of vacuum cleaners. Additionally, irrespective of the energy efficiency of the vacuum cleaners, higher suction power and increased weight positively mediate the recommendations. Focusing design and communication on these aspects rather than on energy efficiency alone can reduce the perceived green risk and increase green trust in sustainable products.

For energy consuming durables, often the largest part of their environmental cost is realised during the use phase. Eco-design legislation to increase the energy efficiency of appliances and cars prescribes the use of eco-settings to reduce energy consumption. Most of the eco-settings usage is optional and, in most cases, defaults to the unsustainable settings after they are switched off. The washing machine study shows only a few percentages of the theoretical energy savings from the eco-setting being realised. The focus of legislators has not been on user behaviour and the effectivity of these energy efficiency measures. The washing machine study shows energy inefficient users consume three times as much energy as energy efficient users (Chapter 5). The comparison of different design for sustainable behaviour interventions showed elimination of the unsustainable settings, combined with feedback on energy consumption to be far more effective in reducing energy consumption. Design interventions are cost efficient to implement and an effective addition to the technological innovations in motor adaptions and insulations. Feedback also teaches new behaviour.

Sustainability should be implicit and not explicit if it is not relevant for the products’ performance or image. By focusing design and communication on consumer relevance and behaviour, this thesis highlights that it is possible to increase sustainable consumption among mainstream consumers.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Delft University of Technology
  • Schoormans, J.P.L., Supervisor
  • Hultink, H.J., Advisor
Award date9 Sep 2022
Electronic ISBNs978-94-6384-355-3
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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