How many times have you cleaned out your closet and dropped the clothes into a donation bin on your way to the mall to buy new attire?
If you consider yourself to be a generally "sustainable" or "green" person, it's likely you do it more often than someone who doesn't think about sustainability at all, according to research done by Dr. Eunjoo (EJ) Han, assistant professor of marketing.
If that behavior—donating older clothes for re-use and promptly buying brand-new clothes—sounds somewhat incongruent, that's exactly what drew Han's attention to the topic. She considers herself to be sustainability-minded and, yet inexplicably, found herself acting in opposition to her beliefs.
"I buy recyclable coffee pods with high intentions of being sustainable, but I never seem to follow through, and I wondered: 'Why is that?'" she said.
With the help of two colleagues—Dr. Saerom Lee, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and Dr. Sommer Kapitan, senior marketing lecturer at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand—she studied the topic. The trio ran multiple lab and field experiments in Texas and New Zealand, where Han was located at the time.
"We found that how unwanted items are disposed of influences future purchases and that if the person donates the items in what they consider to be a sustainable way, they feel justified in purchasing new items in a less sustainable way, such as buying new clothes at the mall instead of going to a consignment shop," Han said.
From a marketing perspective, this information about consumer behavior is useful. Policy makers, sustainability professionals, and nonprofit organizations can use it to understand the downstream effect of donations and perhaps tweak messaging to change behaviors.
"In our experiments, if we told people that not all of the items they donated would be recycled, they were less likely to go buy more," Han said.
On the flip side, retailers can use the information to attract sustainability-minded consumers.
"Some retailers will collect donations and tell customers if they bring in unwanted clothing, they will get a discount to use in the store," Han said. "That type of 'green messaging' can be very effective with people who want to act in a sustainable way. They like the idea of donating to charity and doing something good for someone else while doing something nice for themselves, too."