The Kuznets Curve – understanding our relationship with plastic

We need to change the ways we shop, but behaviour is hard to change. It could become even harder to change if all customers are treated the same.

Environmental issues, and the use of plastics in particular, are the hot topic of the day. As a society we are slowly accepting that our use of plastic is dangerous and that change is sorely needed. We’ve been discussing it as company more and more (see Laura’s blog). Our clients, keen to lead the way in delivering change, have begun to commission research to explore alternatives.

Often, our job as researchers is to understand current consumer behaviour to help identify which alternatives and initiatives will be most effective while minimising the impact felt by consumers.



The Environmental Kuznets Curve gives us a good starting point for explaining consumer priorities. It’s a hypothetical model developed by the economist Simon Kuznets that I came across as an International Relations student: it charts the correlation between GDP per capita and environmental damage as economies develop.

At a national level it suggests that as an economy develops from pre-industrial to industrial, the environmental degradation increases. Then, as the economy moves from industrial to post-industrial and GDP per capita improves, society develops a better relationship with the environment and degradation decreases. Society becomes more amenable to environmentally-friendly methods which were once seen as too costly. Essentially, market growth is actually good for the environment.




So how can this help us?

The model can be scaled down to the individual level where the graph shows the relationship between an individual’s income and their own impact on the environment. The working assumption is:

  • 1. The poorest in society can’t afford (in monetary terms) to damage the environment because they don’t own enough of “bad stuff”
  • 2. The wealthiest in society are most amenable to environmentally friendly alternatives because they can handle the (at least in       the short-term) higher monetary costs
  • 3. Those in the middle – the majority – can afford to indulge in the bad stuff, but the costs of investing in the “good stuff” are considered too high

Take cars, for example:

So what?

Of course, retailers can’t discriminate on the basis of income or personal wealth; policies must be universally imposed. But as customers have different priorities, changes need to be communicated in different ways. Some thoughts:

1. Those at the start of the curve need the most reassurance on cost.

Plastic-reducing initiatives will (initially) be expensive and consumers are understandably wary of what this means for the price of their weekly shop. Transparency is needed so consumers don’t feel like they’re picking up hidden costs (in-store communications could be key here). Provide these consumers with a channel to raise concerns and queries so they don’t feel isolated.

2. The behaviour of the middle bracket is the hardest to change.

Education around the issue is key to winning this group over and putting examples of plastic-reducing initiatives at the front of stores means consumers have to engage with them to some extent. In terms of messaging, lead with cost reassurance and reinforce with the environmental benefits.

3. Those on higher incomes are the most amenable to change.

We’ll likely see the most drastic changes in stores and brands that cater for wealthier customer groups first because any cost implications will have less impact. We can afford to lead almost exclusively with the environmental benefits. Less education around the issue is necessary and brand affiliation could improve alongside reputation.


To summarise, perceived high costs and lack of ease are the biggest factors preventing us from making better environmental choices. The Kuznets curve gives us a starting point for explaining behaviours and priorities, and thus understanding how best to communicate changes to different customer groups.


Jake Whittaker, Research Executive

Katie Grundy