Environmentally conscious individuals who purchase eco-friendly items in a bid to cancel out their negative impact on the planet are damaging the natural world even more.
That is the claim from a study which found the guilt we feel about our carbon footprint forces people to pursue quick fixes in a bid to balance out their actions.
People use mental ‘rules of thumb’ in the hope the good outweighs the bad.
It found that buying products labelled as ‘environmentally friendly’ are actually further damaging the environment – not fixing it.
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Study says tree huggers look at the environment like it is a member of the family and this approach is hampering efforts to protect it (stock)
‘People intuitively think the environmental burden of a hamburger and an organic apple in combination is lower than the environmental burden of the hamburger alone – or that the total emissions of a car pool remain the same when hybrid cars are added to the pool,’ says Study leader Professor Patrik Sorqvist, an environmental psychologist at Gavle University in Sweden.
This leads people to pursue misguided quick fixes to get over eco-guilt.
‘People might purchase some extra groceries because they are ‘eco-labelled’; think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature.
‘And companies – nations, even – claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.
‘Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall,’ stresses Professor Sörqvist.
‘Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view that objects, behaviours and decisions with these labels are ‘good’ rather than ‘less bad’ for the environment,’ says co-author Dr Linda Langeborg, also of the University of Gävle.
‘Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100 per cent climate compensated’, for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden.
‘Instead, we should give consumers immediate feedback on how much ‘eco-labeled’ and other products add to the environmental impact of what they are buying. For example, self-scanning systems in supermarkets could provide customers with an accumulated carbon footprint estimate of their shopping basket,’ suggests Dr Langeborg.
The team of researchers developed a theory that shows best intentions are counter-productive when it comes to nature.
It suggests humans treat our relationship with the natural world like a ‘social exchange’ – making us see environmentally friendly behaviour as compensatory.
Professor Sorqvist likened it to the way we try to smooth things over after disputes with our friends and family.
He said: ‘Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation – and thus to survival.
‘So the human brain has become specialised through natural selection to compute and seek this balance.
‘But when applied to climate change this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones.’
The study published in
So we use mental ‘rules of thumb’ to track our green footprint – and seek out eco-friendly products to make up for any damage we may have done.
Professor Sorqvist said: ‘Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden – no matter how many meat free Mondays you have.’
The study published in Frontiers in Psychology said it would be impossible to mentally account for the environmental impact of all of our actions. So we use mental ‘rules of thumb’ to track our green footprint – and seek out eco-friendly products to make up for any damage we may have done (stock)
When eco-friendly items are incorporated with conventional ones people often assume the overall product is helpful.
Professor Sorqvist said: ‘For instance, some groups have found people intuitively think the environmental burden of a hamburger and an organic apple in combination is lower than the hamburger alone – or the total emissions of a car pool remain the same when hybrid cars are added.’
The researchers say stricter legislation of marketing devices and a carbon footprint label for products would be a better way to guide consumer behaviour.
Dr Langeborg said: ‘Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view objects, behaviours and decisions with these labels are ‘good’ rather than ‘less bad’ for the environment.
‘Instead we should give consumers immediate feedback on how much ‘eco-labeled’ and other products add to the environmental impact of what they are buying.
‘For example, self-scanning systems in supermarkets could provide customers with an accumulated carbon footprint estimate of their shopping basket.’
COULD FEEDING COWS SEAWEED CUT GREENHOUSE GASSES?
Scientists believe feeding seaweed to dairy cows may make cattle more climate-friendly.
Researchers found a cow’s methane emissions were reduced by more than 30 per cent when they ate the ocean algae.
In research conducted by the University of California, in August, small amounts of it were mixed into the animals’ feed and sweetened with molasses to disguise the salty taste.
As a result, methane emissions dropped by almost a third.
‘I was extremely surprised when I saw the results,’ said Professor Ermias Kebreab, the animal scientist who led the study.
‘I wasn’t expecting it to be that dramatic with a small amount of seaweed.’
The team now plans to conduct a further six-month study of a seaweed-infused diet in beef cattle, starting this month.