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Just 26 per cent of coffee drinkers in a study recycled their generic disposable cups. But 48 per cent complied when their cups had their correctly-spelled names on them.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's bimonthly report on research from business schools.

Market researchers already know plenty about consumers – especially what entices us to spend our hard-earned money on things such as a new shirt, shoes, lunch or latte.

But what happens to that product after it is no longer needed or wanted?

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It's a question that has long captured both the personal and professional interests of Jennifer Argo, the Carthy Professor in Marketing at the University of Alberta's school of business in Edmonton.

"I want to shed some light in this area with a focus on identifying ways in which we can increase the likelihood a product that is headed for the trash can ends up in a recycling bin instead – [anything] that increases our chances of a green future for my kids," she says in an e-mail.

To that end, Dr. Argo's latest work, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, expands on the growing academic discussion in the area of postpurchase consumer behaviour. The research suggests that appealing to a consumers' sense of self is critical to unlocking our greener instincts.

Through a series of experiments, the study determined that identity plays a direct role in which bin we choose for our discarded products. In one case, researchers found that just by writing a purchaser's name on a disposable coffee cup made a big difference in where that cup ended up – but only if the person's name is spelled correctly. Get it right and 48 per cent of respondents choose to recycle. That number dropped to 24 per cent when the purchaser's name was spelled incorrectly, or 26 per cent if the cup was left blank.

The study also found identity can be tapped in other ways, including our sense of national pride. More than half of respondents in one experiment chose to recycle cups imprinted with their national flag versus a blank cup.

Consumers link themselves with brands, too. People who strongly identify with Coca-Cola, for example, are more likely to recycle their pop cans than those who are not.

After all, says Dr. Argo, if you trash something linked to your identity – and you recognize that – "it's the equivalent of throwing yourself in the garbage can. And nobody wants to do that."

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Ultimately, says Dr. Argo, businesses who share her own interest in sustainability can learn to encourage environmentally sound choices by getting to know their customer base and incorporating that information meaningfully into the product (or packaging).

Dr. Argo says the results are in line with established research in consumer identity and purchasing behaviour. Even so, she was surprised by the robust connection to a willingness to recycle.

"This [study] provides insight into the downstream implications of identity – that it doesn't just influence acquisition, but also disposal in a meaningful way."

The study was co-authored by Remi Trudel and Matthew Meng, both at Boston University.

Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com.

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