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The UN SDGS And Consumer Research

The UN SDGs (sustainable development goals) are 17 goals members of the United Nations suggest that we need to achieve to deliver a better planet. These goals are not just environmental; they reflect the fact that to have a sustainable planet we need to make it better for all people. We need peace and prosperity to deliver for people and the planet. The goals themselves are hard to argue with, see below. Hopefully, we are all in favor of zero hunger and quality education. Given this, it is hard to imagine a more important task for academics to join. So how then should these goals inform our research? A group of scholars recently looked at connecting the UN SDGs and consumer research.


Why Don’t Consumer Researchers Do Much With The UN SDGs?

The scholars discussed the problems with doing research that speaks to the UN SDGs. I am very supportive of research that connects to the SDGs. After all, if we aren’t trying to make the world a better place then what is the point of it all? That said, I agree with the scholars that it isn’t easy.

…. consumer research, like most scientific disciplines, is affected by fundamental (dis)incentives rooted in the field and its institutions (departments, business schools, professional organizations).

Mende et al. 20204, page 101

The problem is that people get rewarded for doing what the discipline wants them to do. This is not necessarily what is useful for anyone beyond the narrow disciplinary boundaries. The scholars worry about an excessively theoretical take from scholars, theory for theory’s sake. The idea behind research papers is often to impress your academic colleagues rather than address a meaningful topic. The UN SDGs are highly meaningful but the theory might be weaker in a method that helps the planet towards a specific goal. Yet, if we could help solve poverty who, outside a small number of academic gatekeepers, would care about the limited theory in an approach?

They are keen to note that they aren’t being too radical. The authors don’t want to abandon the need for theory, as indeed theory can sometimes be very helpful to practical achievements. Instead, they want advancing theory to be part of a wider purpose, not necessarily the sole goal we look for in a paper.

Rather, we advocate for a balance of theorizing, data/methods, and results that can inform progress toward the SDGs.

Mende et al. 2024, page 101

How To Make Change

They make some suggestions to help make change a reality. Not least is unleashing scholarly passion. Basically, if academics care enough about making the world a better place we will work on it regardless of the barriers. That said, you can achieve more if you are able to be successful under the discipline’s current rules. It is a balancing act, you want to play the current game enough to become influential and then use the influence you attain for good. Of course, the worry is, as it often is in similar situations, that in playing the game you get so obsessed with the game you forget the bigger aim.

A positive point they note is that working on topics related to the SDGs has potential to break down barriers between different types of (marketing) scholars. These ‘bigger topics’ tend to require a range of skills, thus they require bringing together scholars with different knowledge. You might need an econometrician, a psychologist, and someone with deep subject matter knowledge on the same team to tackle ‘big’ problems. Different theoretical frameworks might divide but working on the UN SDGs can unite.

The UN SDGS And Consumer Research

The authors also connect the SDGs with major topics in consumer research. There are some helpful figures that can help focus researchers on topics that matter. They link housing to consumer topics. For example, when studying housing the researcher can consider gender equality (SDG 5).

SDG 5: Gender Equality: Equal access to housing – rental and ownership; to mortgages / lending. Affects gender equality in wealth building.

Mende et al. 2024, page 99

The good news is whatever a researcher’s skills there are likely to be some ways they can connect up to the SDGs and, hopefully, help make the world a better place.

For more on the SDGs see here.

For more on sustainable marketing see here, here, and here.

Read: Martin Mende, Abhishek Borah, Maura L Scott, Lisa E Bolton, Leonard Lee (2024) People, Peace, Prosperity, and the Planet: A Journey toward Sustainable Development in Consumer Research, The Journal of Consumer Research, 51 (1), 91-103 (BTW this paper is free to read so why not give it a go?)

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