Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation
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Vladas Griskevicius (University of Minnesota), Joshua M. Tybur (University of New Mexico), and Bram Van den Bergh (Rotterdam School of Management)
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 98, no. 3
Why do people choose to “go green” and buy environmentally friendly products, from recycled paper towels to energy-saving dishwashers to hybrid cars? According to the authors of this paper, green purchases are status magnets, and customers buy these less-luxurious and more-costly green items primarily when they know other people can notice.
The researchers conducted three experiments, involving more than 400 participants, to explore the roles that price, quality, and social reputation play in determining when customers opt for non-green versus environmentally friendly products. In one experiment, the authors found that people who were asked to imagine they were shopping alone online at home and were told to think about their reputation among their peers were more likely to choose luxurious, non-green products. But when those same individuals were asked what they would buy when shopping in public at stores, their preference for green products increased significantly; the authors believe that this was because others would witness them making the purchase. This was especially true when green products cost more. The researchers found that a higher price tag for an item that might be of inferior quality appealed to people who wanted to show they were willing to sacrifice for the environment. When deciding between two equally priced vehicles, one a luxury car loaded with features and the other an environmentally friendly car with fewer high-end features, 55 percent of participants who were asked to consider their public status chose the green car versus only 37 percent of participants in the control group, who were told to disregard reputation.
The Toyota Prius, a hybrid gas–electric car that has been hugely popular with consumers despite recent safety concerns over its accelerator, serves as a notable example of this phenomenon. Besides being a rolling billboard for environmental consciousness, the Prius costs more than the conventional but highly fuel efficient Honda Civic. Indeed, the authors cite a New York Times story that reported Prius owners ranked environmental concerns last on a list of five reasons they bought the car; the top reason for purchasing the Prius was that it “made a statement about me.” For executives and companies looking to corner the market on green items, the study argues that the key is to link green products to status, especially for pricier goods. Companies should also, whenever possible, ensure that their products are sold and used in public spaces.
Customers aren’t only considering the environment when they purchase green goods; they are also looking to enhance their reputation.