CEresearchNRW: Environmental Psychology & Commercial Upcycling

Friederike von Unruh vom Prosperkolleg Team.

by Friederike v. Unruh

On 06.05.2021 were Prof. Dr. Ellen Matthies (Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg) and Prof. Dr. Monika Imschloß (Leuphana University Lüneburg) participated in the web seminar of the CEresearchNRW network to talk about their research on the topic of Environmental psychology and sustainable consumption research, especially commercial upcycling.

Psychological starting points for the promotion of resource competence

At the beginning of her lecture, Prof. Dr. Ellen Matthies first discussed environmental psychology. She is concerned with how built environments affect people, but also how people interact with them. In addition, environmental psychology deals with the question of when people act in an environmentally conscious manner.

In the early 1980s, environmental psychology research received a boom on recycling. It was investigated which measures encourage people to separate waste and put it outside the door at the right time. Jacobs & Bailey (1982/83) found that not only reward but also information, such as a reminder slip, played an important role. This is only true if the information is released with a norm-activating message. Thus, the research focus changed to social-psychologically influenced research on environmental behavior. This later evolved into analyses that address the role of standards in recycling. Other studies[1] examined how parents can influence their children when recycling. This is because the child is shaped by the behavior of the parents themselves. These standards are highly relevant in recycling.

In addition, Prof. Dr. Matthies discussed psychological research on everyday actions. In addition to recycling and waste avoidance, this deals with topics such as energy saving, mobility behavior and consumption. In the last 5-10 years, sufficiency has also played a role in research. In addition, it was explained which behaviors are relevant in the Circular Economy and which psychological factors we are aware of. Typical behaviors include separating waste as well as returning recyclables to the cycle, buying used or upcycled products, repairing defective products, and sharing things or developing new business models and technologies.

The awareness of the problem and the knowledge of the users are important psychological factors for the return of recyclable materials to the cycle. Information systems should be expanded and user integration promoted. In the case of Second-Hand products, the motivation, norms, (behavioral) costs and availability of the products play an important role. To increase the purchase of used products, standards must be established and made visible. Standards also play an important role in repairing, as well as social challenges. Sociotechnical innovations should therefore be encouraged. Curiosity is of great importance in the development of new business models. In addition to fostering innovation, networking is a critical approach. The Circular Economy and individual participation involves different roles of actors with different actions. For norms to change, you need actors to support new ideas.

Commercial upcycling

In a second presentation, Prof. Dr. Monika Imschloß spoke about promoting sustainable consumption through commercial upcycling. This is an important issue, as growing mountains of waste are still an unsolved problem today. Surveys show that waste prevention is one of the three most important environmental issues. [2] Other studies also show that consumers are willing to change their consumption behavior.

One topic that has recently gained significant importance in this context is commercial upcycling. In this process, companies use waste products or products that are no longer usedand modify them so that they serve a new purpose for consumers. For example, a shoulder bag is created from an old truck tarpaulin. Even though upcycling is becoming more and more popular in practice, only a few studies exist that examine upcycled products and consumer perceptions.

In the following, Prof. Dr. Imschloß presented a research project carried out in cooperation with the chair of Prof. Völckner (University of Cologne), which investigates the reaction of consumers to upcycling products as well as strategies for manufacturers and retailers and social implications. In several experimental studies it is shown that upcycling products (e.g. a bag made of old boat fabric) lead to positive reactions on the part of consumers (e.g. higher purchase intention) compared to regular products (e.g. a bag made of normal fabric).

In terms of strategies for manufacturers and retailers, the research team’s studies show that upcycled products benefit to a lesser extent than regular products when they are advertised with an additional environmental claim. In addition, the study examined whether company size is critical to benefiting from upcycling products. A distinction was also made as to whether the upcycled product was made entirely or only partially from old products. The effect is significantly smaller for the smaller companies, whether they offer partially or fully upcycled products. For larger companies, a positive effect can be seen if the upcycled product is made entirely from old products.

In terms of societal implications, a long-term study has also shown that exposure to upcycling information alone can encourage people to change their attitudes and behaviors towards the environment.

[1] Matthies et al., 2012

[2] Cf. Ipsos Global Advisor, 2018: Global views on the environment