Researchers found consumers are willing to sacrifice performance for perceived social status from green products
guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 March 2010 18.16 BST
Shoppers choose hybrid cars, "green" washing-up liquid and energy-saving devices over cheaper but dirtier alternatives partly to improve their social status, according to a new study published today.
Researchers found consumers are willing to sacrifice luxury and performance to benefit from the perceived social status that comes from buying a product with a reduced environmental impact.
Bram Van den Bergh of Rotterdam School of Management, one of the study's authors, said: "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, 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."
In a series of three experiments for the study which is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers found that people were also more likely to choose green products when doing so in public.
In one experiment, 168 students were split into two groups. One group read a story about social status while a second group read a story without a status message. Asked to make a hypothetical purchasing decision between a green car or a non-green model of the same price but more luxurious and better-performing, 37.2% in the control group chose the green car. That figure rose to 54.5% for those who read the story designed to "activate status motives." The authors claim the experiment is the first to demonstrate that playing on desire for social status is a way to encourage people to make green choices.
In another test, 93 students were asked to pick on a sliding scale between green and non-green products of the same price, depending on whether they were buying in public at a store or in private by shopping online. When the students read a status story similar to the first experiment, their preference in public for the green product was far stronger than in private. A third experiment showed buyers with social status in mind preferred green products when they were more expensive than their conventional alternative.
The authors, who also include Vladas Griskevicius of University of Minnesota and Joshua M Tybur of University of New Mexico, argue that the findings show an untapped way of motivating greener behaviour.
Adam Corner, a research associate at Cardiff University and expert on the psychology of communicating climate change, said social status is a key driver of behaviour: "It's not surprising that people might choose to try and signal their social status through the conspicuous consumption of 'green products'. Even if people don't care about climate change, they care about what other people think of them." He added that one of the most important aspects of the research is that the power of social status could be harnessed to become a critical tool in promoting wider changes in pro-environmental behaviour, such as voting for the greenest party in an election or engaging in environmental activism.
The study does come with one important caveat – no one was actually dipping into their wallet. Michael Valvo, a spokesperson for Toyota UK, said that the company's market research indicated the attraction of advanced technology and the cost of the ownership, not the environment or social status, were the main reasons drivers bought the Prius hybrid car. "Forking out £20,000 for a car is a pretty expensive way to make a statement about being green, it's the second biggest purchase after a house," he said.
The research also failed to reflect the complexity of ethical consumer activity, said Rob Harrison, the editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. "Ethical buying behaviour is far more complicated than this. If you look at the Co-Operative Bank's report on ethical spending, a third of that annual spend is on investment and banking, which you can't do conspicuously unless you leave investment brochures lying around on your coffee table. Our readers say they buy green and ethical products because they want to be instrumental about a goal, such as helping a farm in Kenya by buying fair trade Kenyan coffee." He said only a minority of green shoppers buy green products for status reasons.
A separate recent study suggested that ethical consumers are less likely to be kind and more likely to steal, a claim that Harrison said showed "a shallow understanding of the wider ethical consumer movement." Business leaders including the heads of Tesco, Coca-Cola and Reckitt Bencksier last year argued green consumerism could advert catastrophic climate change.