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How Eco-Consumers Undermine Green Products

Consumer perceptions of the effectiveness of environmentally-friendly products affect how much they use.

Consumers who care about the environment rate green products as less effective than their traditional counterparts. As a result, they use more of the product, in many cases undermining its environmental benefit. The findings come from researchers Ying-Ching Lin of National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and Chiu-chi Angela Chang of Central Michigan University in the United States.

One product, two descriptions…

In one experiment, the researchers studied mouthwash—a product whose effectiveness lies in strength and which consumers can unknowingly overuse. Basing the experiment at a shopping centre, they randomly assigned shoppers to test one of two mouthwashes. Subjects were told the first mouthwash was produced using non-toxic ingredients by a pro-environmental company. The second mouthwash (identical to the first) was described without reference to the environment.

The researchers also assessed the subjects’ environmental consciousness using the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) scale, a survey instrument that measures people’s beliefs about interaction between humans and the environment.

Eco-consumers assume green products are less effective.

The study participants rated the first mouthwash as more environmentally friendly and less effective than the second (identical) mouthwash – and they used more of it to complete the test. Maddeningly, these differences were more pronounced the more environmentally conscious the consumer was. It seems the more you care about the environment, the more likely you are to think your non-toxic mouthwash or concentrated laundry detergent is ineffective—and the more likely you are to compensate for its perceived ineffectiveness by using more product than necessary.

What about third-party endorsements?

The researchers conducted a second study to examine whether a credible product endorsement affected how much consumers used. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of four groups and asked to test and rate a window cleaning product. Again, the researchers measured respondents’ environmental consciousness using the NEP Scale.

One product, four descriptions…

The researchers told consumers in the first group the product manufacturer had pro-environmental interests and used non-toxic ingredients. They gave the second group the pro-environmental information and said Consumer Reports endorsed the product as having “superior cleaning performance.” They gave the third group descriptions of the window cleaner with no mention of the environment or Consumer Reports. And they gave the fourth group only the Consumer Reports endorsement. As with the mouthwash, the cleaner for all groups was identical.

Credible endorsements boost perceived effectiveness.

Consumers who received the Consumer Reports endorsement rated the product equal in effectiveness and used the same amount of it to complete the test—despite the product in the second group being perceived as environmentally preferable. This result was consistent regardless of whether a consumer’s NEP Scale score revealed low or high levels of environmental consciousness.

Compensate with credibility.

Environmentally conscious consumers believe green products are less effective than conventional products. Because of this perceived ineffectiveness, eco-consumers use green products in greater quantities than necessary.

Credible endorsements influence consumers to use the appropriate amount of green products and ultimately reduce waste. Compensate for the perceived ineffectiveness of environmental products with a credible, third-party endorsement.

Ying-Ching Lin and Chiu-chi Angela Chang. 2012. Double Standard: The Role of Environmental Consciousness in Green Product Usage. Journal of Marketing. 125-134.

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