Talking Trash

Why do college students reach for Maruchan instant noodles instead of Nissin Cup Noodles? And why do high school locker rooms smell of Axe body spray instead of Old Spice? These are the kinds of questions that kept Sun Young Ahn awake at night as an undergraduate studying consumer science and business administration at Seoul National University in Korea. Now, as assistant professor of business and leadership at Puget Sound, she’s helping her students explore consumer behavior and marketing in unconventional ways.

Q: You have degrees in consumer science, business, and cognitive sciences. Can you talk about the intersection of these fields?
A: The consumer sciences are part of the social sciences. They study consumers and are very close to business, which focuses not only on consumers, but marketing. In marketing, you need to understand how consumers are using products, what they want, and what they need. I double majored in consumer sciences and business because I was interested in the role of consumers in the marketplace and how consumers make decisions. It helped me to understand the broader picture.

Q: Your favorite teaching activity is something called "garbology." What is that?
A: Garbology is the study of understanding people based on their trash. Conventional, common methods for tracking consumer behavior normally consist of surveys or customer interviews, but both of those approaches rely on self-reporting. Garbology is a qualitative way to understand consumer behavior. There’s no self-reporting. As for students, it’s another way for them to be engaged. Over the course of a week, I ask students to bring in 10 to 15 pieces of clean trash. Each student’s pile gets a number, so it’s anonymous. Then, I ask students to make a consumer profile [for each pile] describing basic characteristics of the consumer: Are they environmentally conscious or money conscious? What retailers or products would they recommend to the consumer? Most of the time, they could quite quickly predict who the student was. 

Q: That’s obviously an activity that you can’t do at the moment. What has it been like trying to rethink education during this time?
A: Since the pandemic started, many industries have said they will continue teleworking indefinitely. But education is not a field where this will work. Yes, I can provide knowledge. I can assign assignments. I can have [students] take exams. But that’s not the approach I want as an educator. I’ve always been fascinated by how we, as liberal arts professors, need to interact with students and have in-depth discussions with hands-on activities (like the garbology activity). I really like to get individual students’ perspectives and have that diversity in my classroom. That participation and engagement have been challenging.

Q: When you’re out doing your regular shopping, do you ever find yourself changing your behavior to reflect a certain profile in case you were ever the subject of a consumer behavior study?
A: I enjoy analyzing my behavior as a consumer. I am a consumer who wants to be rational and compare alternatives (in brands, price, features) thoroughly. But I often find my behavior is solely driven by my mood or impulsivity. Recently, I purchased a $120 fountain pen on Amazon even though I use my computer for my writing. I wanted to have my "comfy" time while handwriting with the beautiful ink pen during this stressful time.

Q: In your spare time you enjoy watching YouTube. Do you watch educational videos? Or are you more of a guilty pleasure binge watcher?
A: I enjoy watching short video clips on a variety of topics (cooking, product reviews, music, travel, science). I also enjoy watching documentaries on National Geographic about the universe, outer space, rockets, and planets with my son, who is in first grade. It is cool to learn about space, but it also helps me expand my perspective to understand humans and the world.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Nov. 8, 2020