In this section, we analyze participants’ self-reported descriptions of packaging avoidance and, first, examine the range of ingroup identifications the participants mentioned being relevant for their precycling behaviors. Then, we examine the precycling behaviors that were performed with the involvement of other group members and explore the range of the related social identity processes shaping precycling behaviors within these groups.
The mentioned ingroups differ in size, composition, purpose, emotional proximity, and spatial proximity. Despite these differences, the groups also have several key characteristics in common: in particular, they are non-activist groups and have not been explicitly founded to fight the environmental packaging waste crisis. Instead, the initial purposes of these “naturally” formed groups included cohabiting, friendship or the prevention of food waste (e.g., food sharing initiatives). Nevertheless, participants do not seem to only act individually, as some perform precycling together with other group members (“we”) and, thereby, could be considered to be responding collectively to the packaging waste crisis. Based on our analysis, we assume that these particular groups form part of each participants’ social identity, meaning that they perceive themselves as members of these groups and derive elements of their self-concept from their knowledge of and emotional attachment to them. Knowledge about a given group includes such things as familiarity with the salient positions its members hold towards precycling (see Section 1.2
). Hence, when some group members are favorable towards precycling and practice it themselves, this ingroup norm is likely to become part of the social identity of other group members and affect their behavior. The emergence of precycling behaviors in groups is determined by a number of social identity processes, as we outline in the following sections, where we explore in detail precycling behavior in three different groups that our participants identify with: household (Section 3.2.1
), neighborhood (Section 3.2.2
), and groups of collective food acquisition (Section 3.2.3
). In Figure 3
, we schematically present the examined ingroup identifications
influencing precycling behaviors among our study participants, as related to their ingroup norms
, ingroup goals
, and collective efficacy
beliefs, based on our modified SIMPEA framework (see Figure 1
3.2.1. Precycling in Household Groups
Our interviews reveal that household groups represent a relevant group form for joint domestic precycling. Many participants living in household groups reported precycling together with one or more members of their household. The household group can, thus, be considered relevant for two reasons: First, by sharing space and routines, household members are likely to influence each other regarding their handling of food packaging (see Section 3.1
). Second, the household group forms a key element of social identity, meaning that participants perceive themselves as members of this group and derive aspects of their self-concept from their knowledge of and emotional attachment to it (ingroup identification
). This, along with shared norms and goals within the group, can have effects on their precycling behaviors. A 28-year-old student, living in a shared flat, illustrates how salient ingroup norms can influence precycling behaviors. According to the young woman, her flat mates are very concerned about packaging waste (appraisal
) and avoid packaging by self-producing certain products (response
). She stated that being a member of this household group (ingroup identification
) and experiencing the affirmative knowledge exchange and precycling habits of her flat mates—an expression of injunctive and descriptive ingroup norms—raised her awareness regarding the topic, motivated her to conform to the group norms, and animated her to join the group′s precycling activities:
P: And, because of that, somehow a completely different consciousness evolved. And when people talk about the fact that they now make their own hair gel—total luxury in my opinion -. and, when you notice that others in your family and friends are doing the same, then you are much more likely to participate than if the all of people around you don’t give it any thought at all or even have a negative attitude towards it.
(Shared flat household no. 4)
The above quote implies that the salience of precycling-friendly descriptive and injunctive ingroup norms can stimulate domestic precycling behaviors in a household group as well as that, through interaction with close contacts outside one′s household group, salient ingroup norms that have the power to shape behavioral response can be encountered.
Another way in which precycling behavior can be shaped is illustrated by a male participant, who described himself as being aware of the packaging waste problem but admitted not always paying attention to it. Based on his statements, we assume that his own precycling behavior depends on the salience of particular ingroups he is involved with and their respective norms. When interacting with friends whom he considers to have greater awareness of the problem and more frequent and advanced pro-environmental behaviors than his own, he is receptive to hearing about their shared experiences and knowledge related to precycling. Such exchanges seem to encourage him to precycle (more often) as well. On the other hand, when he interacts with friends whom he sees as having less awareness of the problem than he does, he tends to modify his behavior in the opposite direction, towards the ingroup norm, because he does not want to oppose it by negotiating the group’s behaviors and arguing morally.
P: Sometimes there are just friends who somehow pay more attention to it and sometimes they say, ‘Yes, I don’t know, you can also get it unpackaged or something like that’. And sometimes—well, that’s actually rather the case—there are people who pay less attention to it, and then you get carried away, just like that. Well, because I am not the type of person who pays attention to this. Normally, I would have, I don’t know, maybe not bought a candy bar. Primarily, I think, because it is unhealthy but also because of the packaging. It’s first wrapped in cardboard packaging, and then there is plastic packaging around it. And that’s just not necessary. But if you meet with others and they say, ‘Yes, okay, let’s get something to snack on’, then that’s what you do. It’s not like I’m going to play the moralizer and say, ‘No, absolutely not’.
(Family household no. 3)
This example indicates that situations of social comparison and interaction tend to determine which norm becomes the ingroup norm and whether this ingroup norm will shape group member′s behaviors. The next quotation emphasizes the importance of ingroup goals. A 45-year-old actress described how the moving experience of hearing about marine pollution from her flat mate led them to actively appraise the threat resulting from packaging waste. Consequently, they became motivated to jointly develop a shared goal and respond to the crisis by avoiding plastics:
P: He [the roommate] had seen islands of plastic [in the ocean]. And he came back, totally motivated, wanting to avoid all kinds of plastic and stuff [laughs]. And then I realized how important it is to simply see what kind of damage that causes. […] We had these plastic bags that we use for organic waste, and [I] said, no, I’ve already read about them, those won’t break [are not degradable], and then we started buying them made of paper.
(Shared flat household no. 2)
In contrast, disagreement concerning packaging-related group goals and norms can obstruct joint precycling. A 32-year-old student lives with his grandmother and reports difficulties regarding avoidance of packaging in their daily routines. When sharing the responsibility for purchasing food, he has experienced obstacles to precycling because of conflicting goals and differing priorities between himself and his grandmother. His decisions to buy certain products are guided by his goal of avoiding food packaging, whereas his grandmother has other priorities. Based on the participant′s description, however, we do not know whether he attempts to argue or negotiate with his grandmother on the packaging topic to develop a common position. Meanwhile, when he alone bears the responsibility for organizing food purchasing—or together with his like-minded girlfriend—then packaging prevention becomes easier for him. In his case, it remains ambiguous whether we are witnessing a group conflict or an interpersonal conflict regarding deviating norms and goals, as evidenced by the following exchange:
P: With my grandma, it is sometimes the case that when she is… If she goes shopping … and she likes something, or where she thinks she can make us happy with it, even though it might contradict my personal packaging goals a little bit, she would get it anyway, which of course results in more packaging.
I: And, in terms of packaging avoidance, when you try to do that, what do you find easy or what do you find difficult about it?
P: (longish pause) Well, difficult maybe, is when if I know I have to get something for the household, for my grandma, because she requested something, then I also want to find the right thing that I think is acceptable to me.
(Family household no. 8)
In addition to ingroup norms and goals, collective efficacy beliefs influence participants’ precycling behaviors. A male participant, 59 years old and cohabiting with his spouse, described how they jointly refuse food packaging by leaving it in the supermarket, which they consider a form of protest against the packaging waste problem. Although they assume that their two-person protest is not likely to provoke rapid systemic change, they do believe in their collective capacity to promote change. They already envision how the participation of many people in such actions of collective refusal of packaging could build up pressure on retailers and the production system to reduce food packaging (collective efficacy belief). Additionally, regarding the need for collective action, this participant calls for systemic precycling approaches to create change. As explained here, he perceives and understands the packaging problem as a complex and dynamic phenomenon which requires multi-level approaches:
P: Yes, we are constantly trying to [avoid packaging]. So, we also try to, somehow, to, I say, well, protest against it sounds so dramatic. When we remove the packaging on site and leave it directly with the retailer, it won’t likely be noticed that someone is protesting (laughs) by leaving external packaging behind. But, in our minds, I then imagine: If everyone did it that way, then they would realize what kind of garbage they are accumulating. Maybe they would then put pressure on their suppliers. So that they could simply produce with less packaging. That’s what was said at some point many years ago, and I try to live by that somehow. Even though I know that me—alone—I cannot change anything about it and that it can only be improved systemically by as many people as possible sticking to it.
(Couple household no. 2)
The above-presented interview transcript passages illustrate the interrelationship between appraisal; ingroup identification with the household groups; and ingroup norms, goals, and efficacy beliefs, indicating that these processes can very well influence group precycling. The following example of a 31-year-old father and teacher of environmental education suggests that the described processes also might proceed cyclically. In the first iteration of this cycle, the participant appraises the current proliferation of food packaging as posing a threat to the environment and humans. His identification with current and future generations and his motivation to ensure a good life on earth affirm his desire to act and to respond to this situation:
P: And from the perspective for my generation, but also for future generations, to make life pleasant on this planet, I honestly consider this path to be without alternative.
(Shared flat no. 5)
Consequently, he precycles together with his girlfriend and her family. This joint response, he said, is influenced by emotions and goals, as their household group feels enthusiastic about developing precycling ideas, goals, and strategies together:
P: Well, sometimes an idea originates from me, and sometimes from my girlfriend. I think we inspire each other to develop avoidance strategies as well.
(Shared flat no. 5)
The next excerpt reveals how the responses of his household group have the potential to further initiate a second cycle of appraisal and response. By precycling, the participant aims to exemplify precycling for others—to inspire and motivate them to join in. Therefore, he also introduces new precycling-friendly descriptive norms:
P: I honestly think that there is no alternative to this path. And I think that, if I can’t behave this way myself, and if I can’t live it in a good and simple way, it will be difficult to inspire other people. So, I feel bad about myself if I say one thing and do another and, on top of that, it has become a bit of a hobby.
(Shared flat no. 5)
These examples can be said to demonstrate how ingroup norms and identities partly emerge and develop through social interaction, discussion, and negotiation regarding precycling within groups, which in turn influences individual or group responses. Aside from such experiences within their household groups, some interviewees also reported that their precycling efforts have been influenced through interaction with their neighbors or by participation in group-based systems of collective food acquisition, as will be described in the following sections.
3.2.2. Precycling in the Neighborhood
Neighbors may regularly interact within a defined shared physical or digital space, including digital neighborhood networks. Altogether, six of our interviewees stated that neighbors influence their own precycling behaviors or, vice versa, that they influence their neighbors′ behaviors—either positively or negatively. Especially for people who live alone, their neighborhood seems to act as an important social group for identification and interaction regarding precycling. A 72-year-old pensioner, for example, evaluates her relationship and interaction with her neighbor very positively and sees their informational exchanges regarding precycling ideas and strategies as being inspiring and supportive:
P: It would only be important for me if I receive good advice. Well, I have a very nice neighbor, and we exchange a lot of information, and I also listen to what he says.
(Single household no. 2)
From this example, we can see a number of social identity processes at work. First, the relationship and interaction between the neighbors are salient and positively evaluated, and the interviewee seems to self-categorize herself as a member of the neighborhood, talking about her very nice neighbor (ingroup identification). Thus, the social group consisting of her neighbors seems to form part of her social identity. Further, both neighbors here seem to agree that precycling is a relevant topic and share their experiences and plans regarding it (shared norms and goals). Moreover, the male neighbor’s informational advice seems to be evaluated positively by the interviewee and, consequently, influences her precycling behaviors as she states listening to what he says (response).
In addition to the exchange of knowledge recounted above, packaging materials are also exchanged and reused collectively by the interviewee and her neighbors, representing a vivid example of cooperation and joint action:
P: And, but me, I dispose very few glass jars, because I collect them when empty and clean them. There are also some friends of mine in the neighborhood who like to preserve food and need such jars, or cans, and I give these to them after I have collected a few. [not understandable words here] It is a swap, yes. Or neighborly help. I have the feeling that they still have a use.
(Single household no. 5)
This example of the 70-year-old pensioner also illustrates the relevance of social identity processes for precycling. By exchanging material resources, these neighbors support and enable each other in reusing food packaging (response). As a result of this collective effort, the interviewee seems to feel effective (collective efficacy belief) and relieved, because through collective reuse the lifecycle of the food packaging has been prolonged before becoming waste.
Apart from joint precycling between neighbors who live in the same building or street, collective precycling can be enabled in shared public spaces, where members of the neighborhood meet to exchange information and participate in activities such as communal cooking and eating (in German, Nachbarschaftsquartier). A 35-year-old participant considers such neighborhood community areas important for jointly learning and implementing precycling routines.
I: Mhm, mhm. Under what circumstances could you succeed in avoiding packaging? Well, you have just mentioned that appropriate framework conditions must be in place, and incentives must be provided. Are there any other circumstances that would make this easier for you?
P: […] Of course, for example in terms of food culture, if many people would cook together, especially in communities, then there would be less use of packaging. Or community kitchens. […] But otherwise, for example, I would say food meetings in the neighborhood, which are socio-pedagogically instructional or something like that, where people meet for a meal. There you can really save on packaging.
(Single household no. 3)
While demonstrating the presence of social identity processes in action, these examples also indicate that a neighborhood can act as a local social network where informational influence, social support, material exchange, and shared spaces can support or enable precycling behaviors.
3.2.3. Precycling via Group-Based Systems of Collective Food Acquisition
In addition to spotlighting the significance of household groups and the neighborhood for precycling, the interviews revealed that group-based networks or projects of collective food acquisition might contribute towards collective precycling. However, according to the interviewees, such alternative infrastructures and systems are generally not yet used by the majority. We asked a 61 one-year-old lecturer and geriatric nurse about what kind of conditions could support her in doing precycling and, in reply, she mentioned the idea of having a social network for collective food acquisition, such as together with members of her families and other families. She does not yet take part in such a network but did report on some experiences non-household family members have had while participating in a social network where they collectively organize food acquisition and, simultaneously, precycle. In the following excerpt, we can see that this social group is organized as a network of group members with different resources and responsibilities. Through personal relations and cooperation between group members and producers, they collectively implement precycling:
P: What else emerged from the conversation with our children, which I also found exciting, was that if you had such networks where tasks are divided, then one of the participating parties only needs to take care of baked goods or something like that. And then you go shopping for the whole family and distribute it yourself. But that only works if you all live in the same city. That doesn’t work with us. It just works in the village. There it is rather pronounced. But we are organized a bit differently here. First of all, [in the village] the source of supply is very clear, meaning you still know the miller, so my father simply does it through his home. And my sister [and her family], they’re very compliant [regarding this concept]. They get the flour from a miller, or the miller brings it over because he supplies several people in the village. And then my father acts as the unloading depot, and my sister picks it up from there. (I: Ah yes) And that is how it is.
(Single household no. 4)
Other participants reported on their experiences with other group-based systems of collective food acquisition. According to them, being a member of and participating in community-based agriculture, delivery of vegetable boxes, or food sharing has helped them reduce packaging waste and conserve resources. By ordering vegetable boxes (in German, Gemüsekiste), for example, people receive loose vegetable and fruits without or with minimal or reused packaging:
P: And now, given that they also support these local businesses, I bought a fruit and vegetable box. Of course it has a regular price, because these fruits and vegetables are all top-quality goods, so there are no flaws. But they pack a great variety. And everything I buy from there, they put in a big box, which had been used to contain fruit. Then you have the whole mix of goods inside. And then you can just take it with you. You then just have to dispose of this single box. So I think that’s also quite good; everything is loose in there.
(Family household no. 2)
Similarly, as with household and neighborhood groups, such group-based food acquisition projects and initiatives were not initially founded to fight the packaging waste problem, and avoidance of food packaging is generally not their primary or only goal. Instead, local, fair and sustainable food production, fair distribution and prevention of food waste comprise some of the central goals of these initiatives. Nevertheless, these projects do provide something of a systemic solution for collective packaging prevention by approaching the food- and packaging-related system on different levels. We identify the group level as one integral component, because acting as a group seems to be crucial in order to achieve shared goals, such as here establishing community-based and sustainable agriculture or preventing food waste, to name a few. Here is how a 31-year-old female web-developer explains her motivation to try out a vegetable-box service:
I: Why did you choose a vegetable box?
P: I just, I thought the idea was kind of nice. I wanted to have it. I wanted to have food that comes from somewhere around here, that is definitely organically grown [through] community-based agriculture, with the idea that you go to the farm yourself a few times a year and actively help on the farm. I thought it was really nice somehow, and I was there on Sunday. It was a great experience for me to see where the food really comes from, how much work is behind the growing of vegetables, which has increased my appreciation of the food even more. And I also found it somehow nice to know who I support in some way, that I support a way of agriculture that I consider fair.
(Single household no. 1)
As reported by a 70-year-old pensioner, community-based agriculture is more than a strategy to purchase unpackaged or minimally packed food. It also has a social meaning to him. Although most members of this community are considerably younger than this interviewee, he feels well integrated and valuable as a group member. Related to his membership in community-based agriculture, the interviewee described how he supports his neighbor in engaging with precycling by picking up and bringing her the weekly vegetable box. Without this joint effort, the neighbor could not participate due to a disability. Hence, in this case, the participant’s feeling of being a contributing member of his neighborhood and the community-based agriculture group (ingroup identification) seems to stimulate his willingness to take responsibility for other group members, to support them, thereby overcoming barriers and enabling his neighbor to participate in this precycling system, as mentioned here:
P: For example, the rhythm is always Thursday in this case, except for holidays, where the delivery day is changed and that means it is important for me to take the time to pick up the box on that day. At the moment, I even pick it up for a neighbor who is also a member there, but she can’t leave the house because of a disability. So, I bring the box to her directly, since it’s on the way.
(Single household no. 5)
The described group-based projects or even systems represent social links between production and consumption (community-based agriculture) and between retail and consumption (food sharing). We call this link “social” because these projects/system rest upon strong community ties characterized by identification with the community (ingroup identification), active involvement and participation, shared norms and goals and joint action (response). Community-based agriculture and food sharing seems to require especially strong communities—both real and virtual/digital. Moreover, collaboration and joint action are basic conditions for running the system. With regard to packaging prevention, participating members can overcome some of the difficulties they usually experience when trying to avoid food packaging in supermarkets (e.g., lack of transparency regarding resource consumption in providing products, trying to buy organic products or those without packaging etc.). Some of these difficulties become resolved due to the systems’ principles and functioning. According to the 70-year-old pensioner, transparency and waste prevention as well as sense of community, participation, involvement, and attachment to places of (agricultural) production constitute central principles of community-based agriculture. He participates in community-based agriculture because he recognizes its transparency regarding production principles and direct trade. Moreover, he appreciates being a member of this community (ingroup identification) and being involved via different media channels and actively contributing to fieldwork, as outlined here:
P: I experienced it in such a way that this community-based agriculture supply and consumption is in any case more efficient, because much less has to be thrown away, since this [production and distribution] chain is also much more transparent and comprehensible for the consumer. From the producer to the consumer. And I have already been to the countryside myself, helped out in the field. That is something you can do. […] One receives photos of what is taking place in the field and videos from time to time. There are some videos already so that the customer can see, even if he is not in the field, how it is run. And that, of course, is also motivating, if one can see that they really care and they give a certain transparency, I say, yes. […] And that brings about […] that also creates trust that they do their best, and you are happy to be part of that.
(Single household no. 5)
According to a 32-year-old student, participating in food sharing facilitates packaging prevention. Instead of buying food, he regularly visits a distribution point for food sharing, where food is provided free of charge. Such food is saved collectively from being wasted. Although the saved food might be packaged, the interviewee perceives the food sharing system as a way to prevent packaging, because the food, including the packaging, had already been considered to be waste. Hence, through food sharing, he conserves resources by preventing food and packaging from being wasted unused:
P: When is it particularly easy to avoid packaging? Whenever I can visit a distributor as often as possible. (Distributor = place to pick up saved food)
I: Okay. And at the distributor, the items are packed less often than in the supermarket?
P: Well, let’s say broccoli is packed the same way as in the supermarket. But then I would have, well, it’s wrapped in plastic wrap, but then I wouldn’t have any problem taking five pieces with me. Because it was already sorted out as garbage anyway. And I don’t have to pay any money for buying the packaging, the garbage, with it, because it has already been declared to be garbage [by the supermarket] prior to reaching the distributor.
(Family household no. 8)
To sum up, we have identified community-based agriculture and food sharing as group-based initiatives and systemic solutions which can contribute towards precycling. Similarly, to precycling within household groups or neighborhoods, the contribution of these group-based projects to precycling seems to be influenced by social identity processes, meaning here ingroup identification with and self-categorization as belonging to the respective group and supporting its shared ingroup norms and goals. These processes, as reported by our interviewees, became visible through their descriptions of social interactions and experiences within such groups, where interaction and communication via both digital media and live participation in relevant activities occurs.