Guilt is more effective than hope in environmental campaigns

Zsófia Horvath

As climate change concerns intensify, both businesses and consumers are more and more inclined to “go green”. However, persuading consumers to change to more eco-friendly options is difficult for businesses, especially in the creative fashion industry. Advertisers must come up with innovative tools to convince consumers to buy sustainable fashion items. One of such tools is visual metaphor that connects abstract ideas with specific issues faced by society. This comparison makes consumers reflect more on the issue and on their own behavior. Visual metaphors can be framed to emphasize the damage of polluting environment by a fast fashion clothing items (loss frame) or to illustrate how eco-fashion could save nature (gain frame).

In her experimental study, Zsófia Horvath, a student of Communication Science Department of the University of Amsterdam, compared how people react to gloomy, pessimistic visuals about the environmental damages of fast fashion and a joyful metaphor that captures how eco-fashion would benefit nature. To understand how people respond to these visual metaphors, she asked participants to report their emotions after viewing the images and measured their intention to buy environmentally friendly fashion items.

Fear and guilt: Secret ingredients of sustainability campaigns

When people feel afraid or guilty, they are more likely to focus on negative consequences of their decisions and try to avoid them rather than try to reach the positive outcome. In the experiment, participants were eighter shown a visual metaphor that illustrated the positive consequences of the pro-environmental choice (see Figure 1) or the negative consequences of choosing a fashion item that damages the environment (see Figure 2). Participants in the first condition were feeling positive about the outcome of a pro-environmental choice, while in the second condition they were feeling guilty about the negative consequences of the bad choice. 

The results have demonstrated that participants who felt afraid and guilty after seeing a negative image were more likely to choose the sustainable clothing option compared to participants who felt hopeful after seeing a positive image. So, communicating hope does not make people to become more sustainable. When people feel hopeful about the future, they are not inclined to change their purchase habits. Therefore, in sustainable fashion campaigns, loss-framed visual metaphors that induce fear and guilt are more effective in driving sustainable decisions than the gain-framed metaphors inducing hope.

The findings highlight that positive emotions might not alter consumer decisions, while negative emotions are very effective in making individuals mindful about their fashion choices. Therefore, climate change communication must shift towards emphasizing the losses one might suffer from when making unsustainable choices. Without arising negative emotions, persuasive communication about sustainable consumption seems inefficient.

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