Transformative Topics


In recognition of April’s Transformative Topics and Earth Day, this week's Transformative Topic features work by Irene Garnelo-Gomez, Kevin Money, and David Littlewood who consider “From holistically to accidentally sustainable: A study of motivations and identity expression in sustainable living.” To see information for the paper on the TCR website click here


The co-authors, Irene, Kevin, and David reflect on the paper and the importance of this research topic:


This paper developed out of our shared passion for sustainability, and our interest in the role individual action can play in addressing fundamental sustainability challenges like the climate crisis, global biodiversity collapse, and demands for social justice. Contributing to tackling these issues motivates what we research and how we do it, but also how we try to live our lives. We were therefore excited to explore this topic and the research question ‘How do identity expression and motivational drives manifest in sustainable living?’ with likeminded individuals, and in so doing better understand our own sustainable living efforts.  


The paper is based on Irene’s PhD research where she emersed herself in the local sustainability community, to whom we remain extremely grateful. It also draws upon Kevin’s years of experience examining the psychological foundations of sustainable behaviours, as manifested in functional identities, reputations, and relationships amongst individuals and in organisations. It further developed from David’s knowledge and commitment to finding new solutions to pressing sustainability challenges, and his qualitative expertise.


In this paper we sought to do things differently. We focused on sustainable living rather than only sustainable consumption, taking the view that what matters most is the overall pattern of an individual’s sustainable behaviours rather than their adoption of any single action. We further sought to provide deep qualitative insights on the role of identity and motivations in sustainable living, eschewing limited demographic variables and quantitative techniques that have been prevalent in the literature.


Previous studies have often categorised sustainable individuals as a homogenous group, driven by satisfaction with their sustainable actions, our research presents a more nuanced picture. We find important within group differences, and that the dissatisfaction people may feel about the depth and impact of their sustainable actions can be important drivers of future sustainable behaviours.


We call for more work on sustainable living by consumer scholars, wider marketing researchers and beyond. We feel our research also offers useful insights for efforts by policymakers and practitioners  to advance sustainable living globally. Finally, we hope our work encourages more reflection and even inspires individuals – in the way we were inspired doing this research - to deepen their engagement with sustainable living.      



Garnelo-Gomez, Irene, Kevin Money, and David Littlewood. "From holistically to accidentally sustainable: a study of motivations and identity expression in sustainable living."  (2022) European Journal of Marketing, 56 (12), 3272-3312.


Information on the paper can be found on the TCR digital archives here. Search for other papers about sustainability here.




This paper aims to examine the role of individual action in addressing challenges of sustainability, and to help marketing scholars and practitioners better understand what motivates sustainable living.



Semistructured interviews with 35 individuals self-identifying as sustainable shed light on motivations and identity expression in sustainable living. Four Drive Theory, and Personal and Social Identity Theory (operationalized through the Dynamic Model of Identity Development), provide this study’s guiding theoretical framework. Data analysis was informed by the Gioia methodology.



Individuals differently express their personal and social identities through sustainable living, and are differently motivated to live sustainably. Those expressing personal identity salience through sustainable living draw on a broader set of motivations than those expressing social identity salience. This results in varying levels of commitment to sustainable living, with differences also found in individuals’ personal satisfaction derived from their sustainable living efforts. Based on these findings, a novel typology of sustainable individuals is developed.


Research limitations/implications

This study is limited by its focus on one geographic area and relatively small sample size. A key implication is the need to consider both personal and social identity when studying behavior in other marketing contexts.


Practical implications

The research provides important insights for marketing practitioners, policymakers and others seeking to better categorize sustainable individuals and target marketing messages to encourage sustainable behaviors.



This paper contributes to marketing scholarship by providing new insights on the role of identity and motivations in sustainable living. It introduces a novel typology of sustainable individuals, founded on differences in identity expression and motivational drives, which are also associated with the range of sustainable behaviors people engage with and how individuals make sense of these behaviors.



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