Once upon a time: children’s stories of Eco-School Learning

Elaine Ritch, Christopher A Dodd

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The retail environment within the UK is highly competitive and retailers seek to position value that will appeal to consumers. There are a number of strategies that retailers will adopt to align with consumer value, and since the global economic crisis of 2008 and the UK governments subsequent implementation of austerity policy, many retailers have focused on being price led. This is evident with the expansion of international discount retailers entering into the UK marketplace (for example Lidl, Aldi, Primark, H&M) and the increase of UK discount retailers (for example Poundland, B&M, The Range); as a result, many established UK retailers have struggled to compete (Brian, 2017), leading to the store closures of established UK retailers (House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer’s, Debenhams) and job losses. As such, retailers may seek alternative positions of value and this research seeks to explore if addressing growing concerns for sustainable development could provide a competitive advantage. Sustainability is a point of value that is regaining traction, stimulated by concerns for climate change and the detrimental impact that production, consumption and disposal has upon the environment (Agdar et al., 2005). Inspired by visual imagery, such as the BBC’s Blue Planet series that featured the impact of single use plastic in the oceans (Turner, 2017) and Non-Government Organisations (NGO), such as Greenpeace, sharing photographs of the impact of waste upon wildlife, attention has turned towards how retailers can innovate within the supply chain to support consumers’ adoption of sustainability. One example from UK supermarket Iceland offers a point of differentiation that addresses sustainability with their recent partnership with Greenpeace to produce a Christmas advert that illustrates the impact of palm oil on deforestation and the orangutan population. Despite being banned by the UK body that pre-approves television advertising the advert has been widely shared on social media, illustrating consumer sentiment for the issues raised by sustainability. We argue that growing concern for sustainability is driving consumers’ appreciation of value and it would be remiss of retailers if this is not included within their business design. The growth of sustainable consumption has been noted over the last few decades (McDonagh and Prothero, 2014) but, with concerns growing that the detrimental impact of human behaviour of the planet may soon be irreversible (Nuccitelli, 2017), there is pressure on retailers to consider the impact their business practice has upon the environment. The academic debate around which consumer cohorts are most concerned for sustainability is inconclusive, but the recent Global Shapers Annual Survey (2017) found that for the third consecutive year Climate-Change was the main concern for millennials (World Economic Forum, 2017), superseding concerns for large scale wars, terrorism and inequality. Further, 91 percent of the millennials surveyed believed that science has proven that humans are responsible for climate-change and this posits the question: will future consumers (today’s children) expect more from retailers in moving towards a global consensus to mitigate the negative consequences of consumer behaviour? Understanding children’s engagement with sustainability offers important insights for marketing practice. Children do not only have a stronger voice in household decision-making, but also, they are the consumers of the future, inheriting a world that is facing an existential crisis originating from industrialisation and consumer culture. The drive for lower pricing has facilitated a tendency to pursue lower quality, less durable offerings (Brian, 2017), meaning that scarce resources with a limited lifespan are contributing to increased consumer waste and subsequent pollution. This impacts upon food and water resources, potentially endangering human and other species sharing food systems. Sustainability is brought to the attention of younger consumers through the school curriculum, which supports the development of Eco-School activities (Eco-Schools, 2014), yet little is known about how this education translates into consumer behaviour. Marketing research rarely focuses on children, despite their growing voice in household consumption practice (Ritch and Brownie, 2015). Our exploratory research explores children’s perceptions of sustainability by examining their involvement with Eco-School learning to see how this influences family behaviours. Another under researched theme is the impact of Eco-School activities within the curriculum. The Eco-School agenda emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992 and eco-schools were established in the UK in 1995 (Pirrie, et al., 2006). There are currently 49,000 Eco-Schools in 64 countries (both developed and developing) who have been awarded Eco-School status with the main purpose being to educate children of their responsibility to care for the environment (Eco-Schools, 2014). Schools adopt a localised approach that links into community-based initiatives to ensure activities are meaningful for the pupils (Eco-Schools, 2014). Typically, this would include the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle) which would translate into activities that address litter, energy use, food, waste-management and recycling (Ozsoy and Ertepinar, 2012). This research seeks to determine how Eco-Schools shape children’s understanding of the impact of business practice has upon the environment and their responsibility as consumers to progress the sustainability agenda. To engage with children and to provide them with autonomy, 20 Scottish pupils in Primary 6 and 7 (around 10 and 11 years old) were given a disposable camera and asked to capture images of ways in which they see sustainability occuring. Ethical consent was gained prior to this, from the research institution (Glasgow Caledonian University) and from each child’s parents, ensuing of course that the child was happy to be involved. Parents were invited to the interview and they were informed of the types of questions that may be asked. Once the child had completed taking photographs, the camera film was developed and the children were interviewed using their photographs to stimulate discussion and gather their thoughts on sustainability. The content of the interviews spanned activities in school that taught them about sustainability; behaviours in the home, and ways in which they observed their local environment. The visual and textual data was analysed and this led to the development of three themes that illustrate local actions leading to a global impact: • Littering locally leads to global pollution: the pupils understanding of the impact of waste at a global level was endorsed by noting litter in their locality. The message to dispose of waste responsibly out of respect for people, animals and the environment was evident through their expressions of distaste for the act of littering. • Reduce, reuse and recycle is a mantra taught is schools and the pupils were very well versed in this. There was knowledge of which ‘energies’ were sustainable and the need to reduce scarce resources, such as gas and water, as they grappled with complex concepts such as global water shortages and renewable energy sources. There were many examples of novel reuse of materials in the home and garden. • Healthy personal activities were also healthier for the planet and emerged from the pleasure of being outdoors and engaging with practical activities, such as gardening, walking and cycling. The pupils considered the benefits of outdoor activities as twofold: it was better for their own health, whist it also minimised the detrimental impact on the environment as well as enabling the environment to flourish. Limitations of generalisability are assumed from the small cohort, but the aim of this exploratory research is to develop a wider research frame to enable deepening of the investigation. Further, in order to gain access to the children, parental consent was required and this led to a predominance of families who were already engaged with sustainability. To fully consider the impact of Eco-School activities, it is important to access the hard to reach children who may be sustainable pioneers within the family and this is a goal for future research. The findings from this research will be used to develop a wider research approach along with Eco-School teachers in Scottish Primary schools with the aim of accessing a wider range of children and families. Further limitations include the ethical implications of marketing to children, who can be considered as a vulnerable group. Although it could be argued that sustainability marketing has less of a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing than many other products currently available, care should still be observed in any approaches. Moreover, as this research includes children’s observations and knowledge of sustainability, the aim is to consider the degree to which children are more likely to purchase products that address concerns for sustainability, rather than identify how to construct marketing activities that appeal to children. Given children’s knowledge and understanding of sustainability, they may be less susceptible to green marketing efforts and ‘greenwashing’. This could offer a route for future research. It can also be assumed that businesses, brands and retailers will need to incorporate sustainability more clearly when designing future strategies. References Adger, W.N., Arnell, N.W. and E.L. Tompkins. 2005. Successful adaptation to climate-change across scales, Global Environmental Change, 15, pp. 77-86. Brian, A. 2017. The Rise Of Discount Stores Isn't A Surprise, It's A Sign Of The Times. Huffington Post. Available from: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/andy-brian/the-rise-of-discount-stores_b_17806762.html?guccounter=1 [Accessed 26 June, 2018] Eco-schools (2014). ‘About Eco-schools’. Available from: http://www.ecoschools.global [Accessed 29 November 2016] McDonagh P, Prothero A. 2014. Sustainability marketing research: past, present and future. Journal of Marketing Management 30(11/12): 1186-1219. Nuccitelli, D. (2017). New research may resolve a climate ‘conundrum’ across the history of human civilization. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/jun/14/new-research-may-resolve-a-climate-conundrum-across-the-history-of-human-civilization Ozsoy, S. and H. Ertepinar (2012). ‘Can eco-schools improve elementary school students’ environmental literacy levels?’, Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 13, 2(3), pp. 1- 25. Pirrie, A., D. Elliot, F. McConnell and J.E Wilkinson (2006). ‘Evaluations of Eco School Scotland’. Project Report. Beautiful Scotland, Stirling, UK. Ritch, E.L. and D. Brownlie (2016). ‘Doing it for the kids: the role of sustainability in¿family consumption’, International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management. 44(11),¿pp. 1100-1117. Turner, J. (2017). Blue Planet II: can we really halt the coral reef catastrophe? The Conversation. Available from: https://theconversation.com/blue-planet-ii-can-we-really-halt-the-coral-reef-catastrophe-87286 [Accessed 18 January 2018] World Economic Forum (2017). Millennials Survey: ‘Refugees Are Welcome, Robots Can’t¿Be Trusted, Climate Change Is Our Biggest Concern’. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/press/2017/08/mi survey-refugees-are-welcome-robots-can-t-be-trusted-climate-change-is-our-biggest-concern/
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2018


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