What is conspicuous conservation, and could it really help save the planet?

It can be hard to see how your small acts of sustainability are helping. Here’s what the research says about the power of individuals to influence businesses.

What is conspicuous conservation, and could it really help save the planet?
[Source Images: Allofyoush/Blendswap (bag mesh), mik1190/Blendswap (solar panels)]

For many Americans, the past few months have offered several harsh wakeup calls about how quickly climate change is going to wreak havoc upon our planet. A spate of recent studies and reports have detailed how we’re headed toward a disaster as soon as 2030, while forest fires in Northern California, the 2019 polar vortex that drove temperatures down to -46 degrees, and the frequent hurricanes in the Caribbean have made the Earth feel less and less habitable to humans. Three quarters of Americans now believe that global warning is happening. A third say they are very worried about climate change. And many are asking what we, as individuals, can do to address the problem.


If you look at the numbers, the scale of the problem appears to be so vast that individual actions can have very little impact. A report by the Climate Accountability Institute found that 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced by 100 companies. Meanwhile, Richard Heede, cofounder and co-director of the Institute, told Vox that if we were to track the individual impact of the 7 billion people on the planet, it would be a minuscule fraction. “[T]here would be a lot of digits behind the zero in terms of percent of global emissions attributable to or savable by an individual,” he says. Scientists and other climate experts say that we need large-scale solutions to avert disaster. This means fundamentally transforming our economy. We need the government to intervene with policies that will prevent the biggest carbon-producing companies from continuing to pollute the atmosphere. This is the goal of radical plans like the Green New Deal, which recommends shifting away from fossil fuels and limiting air travel.

So is there any value at all in our small acts of conservation? We need to acknowledge that our impact–in terms of pure numbers–is relatively small. Yet research suggests that we should absolutely be conscious about what we buy and how we live, especially since our actions can nudge our peers to contribute, through what some scientists call “conspicuous conservation.” Here are some ways to do so.

You can help keep companies accountable

Companies are paying attention to what we buy–and, perhaps more importantly, what we are not buying. You have a lot of power to coerce companies to behave more responsibly by speaking out when you believe they are doing something problematic. Economists have found that boycotts are very effective tools that consumers can leverage.

Brayden King, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, has found that a quarter of consumer protests result in some action from the company. He points out that in the past, boycotts only tended to be effective if they had the backing of a larger group or institution, like a union. But he’s found that things have changed since the advent of social media. Today, everyday consumers have the ability to get the attention of the national media quickly and effectively, and things can change quickly.

[Source Image: mik1190/Blendswap (solar panels)]

Our concerns about the environment are not falling on deaf ears. Last year, many consumers learned exactly how terrible plastic straws are for the environment. Although plastic straws account for only about 0.03% of total plastic waste by mass, they are not recyclable and are easily swept into the oceans, where sea animals choke on them. (Last year a video of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose when viral, contributing to the straw outrage.) An estimated 500 million straws are used every single day, and a study recently found that 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches. Plastic also produces greenhouse gases when it degrades, contributing to climate change. This prompted a wave of consumer protests on Twitter and Facebook, which quickly led many companies–including Starbucks, Marriott, American Airlines–to start banning plastic straws in their businesses. Most expect to be plastic straw-free by 2020.


But it’s not just negative attention that companies care about. A 2017 study by Cone Communications, a PR firm focused on corporate social responsibility, found that 89% of consumers are likely to switch brands to one that is associated with a good cause, given similar price and quality, and 88% would be more loyal to that company. Many brands realize there is money to be made by capitalizing on the current consumer zeal for sustainable products. For instance, Evian has pledged to only use recycled plastic in its supply chain by 2025. Experts say that the company was forced to do this because of a worldwide consumer backlash against disposable plastic, coupled with government mandates that stop brands from creating disposable plastic products.

As a consumer, it is absolutely worth your time to continue researching the products you purchase and the brands that make them. But you can also take it a step further and call out brands that are not being vigilant enough about their environmental footprint. Over time, it is possible that your choices–coupled with those of other ethical consumers–will force large multinational corporations to do better.

You can keep yourself, and your community, accountable

As an environmentally responsible consumer, you have the power not only to influence companies but also other people in your life. A psychological study by Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University found that the most effective way to get people to save energy was by convincing them that their neighbors were better at saving energy than they were. In a famous experiment, Cialdini found that people were not motivated to be more sustainable by the promise of saving money, or even feeling good about saving the planet or being a good citizen. Instead, people who read that 77% of their neighbors turned down their air conditioning also turned down theirs.

Peer pressure works, particularly when it comes to nudging people to be more sustainable. One of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to just stop consuming as much. So talking openly about your commitment to buying fewer clothes and household items may well make others feel the pressure to do the same, even if your individual choice doesn’t make a significant difference in the grand scheme of things.

[Source Image: mik1190/Blendswap]

There is no way for you to tell how effective your neighbors are at saving energy, unless you get a letter in the mail from your utility company telling you so. In fact, this is precisely what Opower, a San Francisco-based energy efficiency company, does to nudge consumers to use less energy. But many other forms of eco-friendly consumption are very conspicuous. You can whip out your own reusable metal straw with you at lunch with friends, or send your kid to school with snacks in a reusable silicone bag rather than a disposable Ziploc one. You can choose to drive a Prius or install solar panels in your house.


In a 2011 study, a pair of scholars from the University of California, Berkeley referred to these very obvious demonstrations of environmental friendliness as “conspicuous conservation.” They observed that Prius-owners were not buying their cars entirely for selfless reasons but also for the way they identified them with this noble cause, giving them a “green halo.” And when the Prius was first introduced, the adoption of the car tended to happen in particular neighborhoods, partly because others in the community also wanted the “halo.” The scholars call this “competitive altruism.”

The bottom line is that thoughtfully buying products that are less polluting–and proudly advertising the fact–can spur those around you to do the same.

What now?

When you hear that life on earth is on the verge of extinction–which is not an exaggeration, according to many climate scientists–a perfectly reasonable reaction is to try to change your behavior to be more eco-friendly. You should follow that instinct, but it is equally important to understand that there is little we can do as individual consumers to change the situation.

As a conscious consumer, there are many ways you can advocate for bigger change. You can apply pressure to companies by asking them about their business practices and calling them out when they’re failing to do enough. This means reaching out to them on social media or through customer service channels. Many companies use platforms like Hubspot keep track of customer feedback, and when enough people raise a concern, it often ends up reaching people high enough on the totem pole to make a difference. You can also support businesses that are environmentally responsible, helping them serve as a model to the rest of the industry. You can also create a culture of conservation in your community, by sharing how you reduce your own carbon footprint with your friends, family, and neighbors–again, a way to nudge them to improve their own behavior.

Of course, none of this is enough. Scientists say that the most important thing you can do to avert the crisis is to advocate and vote for policies that will bring about more comprehensive change. This means supporting political candidates who promise to carry out initiatives that will reduce the global initiative and then holding them to account when they are in office. It also means using other political tools at your disposal–from petitions to protests–to show the government that there is a strong political will to bring about real change, even if it means some sacrifice. It’s important to remember that it’s not a zero sum game. You can–and should–push for broader political change, as well as nudging businesses and communities to do better.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts