The challenges of maintaining a sustainable self-identity

What is a sustainabile self-identity and what costs does it bring? Let's have a look at this topic with the intervention of our collegue Rana Labidi.

Sustainable identity
The challenges of maintaining a sustainable self-identity
7 February 2023

Sustainable identity: a driver of sustainable behavior

Over the past few decades, consumers have shown an increasing willingness to behave more sustainably. Researchers have found that individual factors such as concern level for the environment or contextual factors such as economical context impact consumers’ likelihood of engaging in sustainable behavior.

In the field of sustainable consumer psychology, sustainable self-identity refers to “the degree to which a person perceives his or herself as an individual who performs environmentally friendly actions”. Scholars have explained that an individual’s sustainable self-identity determines their intention to act sustainably. Therefore, people labeling themselves as green, responsible or even vegetarian feel more motivated to engage in sustainable behaviour in order to maintain coherence with their pro-environmental identity.

Sustainable identity dilemma

Identities are what guide all of our daily decisions and help us build consistency in our actions. However, identities are complex and inconsistencies are inevitable. In fact, we are all a construct of multiple identity components representing different wants and needs that can sometimes be contradictory. For instance, certain individuals may want to comply with their green identity but feel restricted by another identity component. For example, an individual wishing to act upon his/her green identity might prefer purchasing organic rather than non-organic products but may be restricted by his/her desire to allocate spending on entertainment rather than food.

This example illustrates the identity dilemma, a phenomenon that occurs when an individual holds strong personal commitments to two incompatible and distinct identity components. Research has demonstrated that individuals holding a sustainable self-identity often experience such conflict, hindering consistency in their sustainable consumption behavior. 

What happens when consumers face a sustainable identity dilemma?

When facing a sustainable identity dilemma, individuals have to choose between sacrificing one identity over the other. When sacrificing their sustainable identity, consumers systematically experience guilt. They also might suffer from self-hypocrisy and external criticism for not staying true to their identity. 

    Guilt as a driver for change 

Post-behavioral guilt is the feeling that consumers develop after having realized that they have acted against their own moral values. It is the most recurring consequence stemming from an identity dilemma. When experiencing guilt, consumers look for restoring their self-esteem. In fact, guilt motivates individuals to reduce discomfort. The more intense the feeling of guilt, the more likely a change in behavior is bound to occur.  

    How to resolve this dilemma? 

In order to restore their inner peace, consumers proceed to engage in different types of behavior:

  • Failing to take accountability for their actions. This could take place through simple self-denial or through blaming others (often companies or state institutions).
  • Reconstructing their self-identity by integrating both conflicting wants and needs into a new self-identity. For instance, if you face a conflict between being a fashion addict (thus engaging in overconsumption) and being sustainable, you can opt for redefining yourself as “second-hand fashion addict” thus satisfying both identities by adopting a more sustainable way of experiencing fashion. 
  • Actively making up for their unsustainable behavior by making compromises or directly compensating for their negative behavior. For instance, not being able to afford organic products, an individual could compensate for his/her guilt by limiting his/her meat consumption. This reaction is most effective for getting rid of the post-behavioral guilt but does not entirely solve identity dilemmas…

    Compromises are effective but not the forever solution to dilemmas
For individuals who hold a strong sustainable self-identity, the most used coping mechanism  to this dilemma is to establish compromises or compensations. However, compensations, especially of monetary nature can be counterproductive as they easily tackle the feeling of guilt but do not specifically encourage to actually change our behavior. It is undoubtedly the case that donating a few euros for carbon compensation when buying a flight is an easy solution to getting rid of guilt, but this simple solution ignores other/better alternatives that require more time and effort.

Even companies experience self-identity dilemmas 

A sustainable company is the representation of multiple individuals supporting the same goal. Therefore, it is undoubtable that it feels guilty whenever it fails to support its sustainable aspiration. Just as for individuals, it is difficult for a company to maintain a consistent pro-environmental corporate identity as this one can be challenged by internal dilemmas and external factors.

As soon as a company does not act in accordance with their claimed sustainable identity, consumers might point them out for engaging in corporate hypocrisy. In situations where companies show inconsistent corporate social responsibility, companies often endure a negative change in their reputation as consumers perceive them as less credible and thus, less trustworthy.

However, just as an individual’s sense of guilt and confusion must not stop them from affirming their sustainable self-identity, a company must not cease making an effort to consider sustainability in their daily processes.

 Just as forging one’s self-identity, walking towards sustainability is a step-by-step journey.

Nobody is perfect 

We need to dismantle the idea that, in order to consider ourselves as sustainable, we must be irreproachable. We need to acknowledge that systematically prioritizing sustainability can be hard and sometimes impossible. 


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