Oftentimes people waste products that could still be used, that is, products that still have remaining value left. For instance, they waste food that could still be eaten, throw out unused products, or replace appliances that are still functioning. Although at first sight this seems to suggest that we live in a ‘throwaway society’, in which people simply do not care about the waste they generate, there is evidence to suggest that people actually have an aversion to wastefulness.
In a recent study, Erica van Herpen and Ilona de Hooge have examined this conflict between wasting products and not wanting to be wasteful. The study shows that the feelings of discomfort that arise can have negative consequences for brand attitudes of everyday mundane products. This implies that waste behavior not only has environmental, economical, and social implications, but also managerial implications for manufacturers, for whom brand attitudes are of vital importance.
How people feel about wasting
For many persons, wasting is not careless or carefree. Despite a continuous generation of household waste, and despite that people tacitly accept waste as an inevitable consequence of consumption, people often still feel anxious or concerned about wastage, and feel guilty about wasting.
Discarding unused utility is psychologically discomforting, and to resolve the negative feelings that arise, people may alter their view towards the brain. Thus, the central idea of the study is that when someone throws away a product with unused utility, his/her attitude towards the product will be lower compared to not wasting the product or to other ways of disposing the product (e.g., donation, recycling, selling).
Three studies were set up to examine the effect of wasting products with unused utility. In the first two studies, people were asked to imagine a situation in which they wasted a product (throwing out books, wasting leftovers after a party, throwing away a half emptied bottle of apple-cranberry juice). People reported feelings of discomfort as a result, and lower brand attitudes than when wasting did not occur.
In the final experiment, people were invited to the lab and provided with an excessive amount of ingredients to make a salad, which they subsequently ate. Leftover ingredients were either wasted or could be left for future use. Participants reported lower brand attitudes when wasting the unused ingredients than when these could be left for later use, but only when the ingredients had a visible brand name and brand was thus salient.
Consumer wasting can have severe consequences for manufacturers. Wasting products with unused utility, even when these are mundane, leads to feelings of discomfort and can decrease brand attitudes.
This adds a new perspective to the discussion around consumer waste and sustainability. Whereas the unwanted consequences of wastefulness for the environment and people’s financial situation have already received attention, this study demonstrates that a consumer-related behavior, the wasting of a purchased product with unused utility, can have undesirable consequences for manufacturers. This may inspire brand managers to spend additional effort on preventing their products from being wasted.
Read the full paper: Erica van Herpen and Ilona de Hooge (2019). When product attitudes go to waste: Wasting products with remaining utility decreases consumers’ product attitudes. Journal of Cleaner Production, 210: pages 410-418. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.10.331