Going green to be seen
Research shows people will forgo luxury for green products when status is at stake
March 2010. Why do people purchase pro-environmental “green” products? Do we buy them because we care about the planet, or because they enhance our image? A new study, co-authored by Bram Van den Bergh from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, has found that for many people, environmentally-friendly products, like fair trade coffee and hybrid cars, are merely status symbols.
The researchers argue that buying green products can be construed as altruistic, since everyone benefits from a better environment, despite the products costing more and being of a lower quality than their conventional counterparts. Because biologists have observed that altruism might function as a “costly signal” associated with status, the study examined in three experiments how “status motives” influenced the desire for green products.
The results suggest that when people shop online, they tend to favor high quality products that make them feel comfortable, but when shopping in public, they are willing to spend more on lower quality green products if those purchases make them appear to be caring and altruistic to others.
Dr. Van den Bergh says one of the best examples of this is the Toyota Prius, which essentially functions as a mobile, self-promoting billboard for pro-environmentalism. “Driving a luxurious non-green car, like a Hummer, communicates one’s wealth, but also suggests that the buyer is a selfish and uncaring individual who is concerned primarily about his own comfort rather than the welfare of society. Driving a hybrid, like a Prius, does not only displays one’s wealth as it costs many thousands of dollars more than a conventional but highly fuel-efficient car, but also signals the owner cares about others and the environment,” said Van den Bergh.
The study also shows that status motives increased desirability of green products, especially when such products cost more—but not less—relative to non-green products, as is the case of the Prius.
For entrepreneurs and companies looking to capture the green market, getting the product to be purchased and used in public is key. When people can see others doing good, both they and the environment benefit. But in the privacy of one’s home, luxury and comfort is still the winner.
The study is detailed in “Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation,” recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and co-authored by Vladas Griskevicius from the University of Minnesota and Joshua M. Tybur from the University of New Mexico.