The role of social networks in household decision making about single use plastic

Photo by Leah Kelley on

Aleksandra Besevic, 19th February 2021

In the 2014 paper published by member of this research team in Journal of Business Ethics it was found that social influence of friends and family played a key role in the update of bags for life for grocery shopping. Seven years later, we again find that social influence can be empowering and the practices of one household are often incorporated by others within their communities. We asked participants to tell us about individuals or groups outside of their household that influenced their behaviour towards reducing single use plastics. Responses ranged from personal connections such as friends, extended family, local community groups, and also wider social media networks.

Social networks influenced participants in a number of ways:

  1. Educating them about ways to be more ethically conscious

Many participants describe difficulty in finding ways to dispose of certain plastic objects in their home. Sharing ideas with friends, family or social media groups was often a way to discover local opportunities to increase recycling, or ways to reuse items in the home.

Similar to earlier work, we found that the attitudes of family and friends also influenced the ways that people thought about plastic in their home and their own responsibility in managing it.

I think my beliefs and behaviours are influenced by education via word of mouth this might be information passed on by friends or families, reading, podcasts, places I have visited.

participant 2

2. Reinforcing values and providing confidence

Discussion between members of a social network can help individuals to connect and share with like-minded individuals who can reinforce their values and relationships. In addition, blogs or podcasts can provide further reinforcement and increase confidence to practice these behaviours.

Being part of a community can provide the opportunity to guide and instruct on certain practices by being part of support group related to environmental issues. Social connections can develop and unfold over time and individuals gain support from groups to understand the collective impact their actions have on overall environmental practices.

3. Creating accountability

Engagement in social media as a member of the community also provided a sense of accountability to encourage not only short-term changes but growing mind-set to change. For example:

I follow a few people on Instagram that are doing their bit. I started my own feed too, more for myself, to push myself to keep considering ‘what can I change next’. I am far more thoughtful about what I buy these days. When something breaks, I now consider whether there is a more sustainable option. E.g. my plastic mop bucket cracked, so I brought a metal one instead. It’s lasted much longer so far and is easy to recycle if it does.

participant 17

Whilst, not everyone needs a social media account to keep them accountable, seeing others behaving in an ethically conscious way ensured that such actions remained at the forefront of people’s minds as they made household decisions.

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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