What Makes Consumers Go Green? Depends on Who’s Around

What Makes Consumers Go Green?

Leverage the desire to present a positive image to others.
John Peloza April 16, 2012

It depends on who’s around.

Consumers expect firms to address environmental issues. In response, firms are developing environmentally friendly products and instituting policies that encourage green consumption. These initiatives include everything from energy efficient devices to incentives for using reusable shopping bags.

The good news: these products and policies aren’t just environmentally friendly, they can save consumers money. For example, energy efficient devices cost less to operate. And discounts are offered when consumers use their own shopping bags.

So to promote these products and policies, marketers can highlight the self-benefits (i.e. cost savings) or they can highlight the other benefits (i.e. environmental protection). Some say highlight the environment, others say “show me the money.”

What’s the best way to position products and policies that encourage consumers to go green? Todd Green (Simon Fraser University) and I conducted research using both environmentally friendly products (fuel-efficient vehicles and cold water detergent) and consumer policies (using a reusable coffee mug).

Going Green Needs an Audience

Results of our studies suggest that the optimal positioning strategy depends on who’s watching. Across several studies with a variety of both student and adult consumers, we found that the ability of one appeal or another to stimulate consumer adoption depends on whether the consumer is alone or in front of other people.

We know that consumers like to give others the impression that they are environmentally conscious by engaging in environmentally friendly consumption. But our research shows that it’s not that simple. Consumers respond positively to advertisements that focus on benefits to the planet when making their consumption decision in front of other consumers. It’s part of telling others that they really care about the environment. But when consumers see an advertisement focusing on their personal benefits in a public setting, they are less inclined to “go green".

Consumers Change Their Tune in Private

When consumers encounter these same advertising appeals in private settings, the opposite effect occurs. People respond positively to advertisements that express how they can save money by going green, showing less inclination toward products promoted using the benefit to the environment.

What’s more, this desire to create an impression is so strong that consumers will even forgo cash value.  Consumers who took part in our coffee taste test were offered an extra 50 cent payment if they brought their own mug to the experiment. When participants thought the taste test would be public, they were much more interested in “saving face” than saving money. As a result, they showed markedly lower rates of participation when the reward was positioned as a cash bonus. When positioned as a means to demonstrate support for the environment, participation in public settings spiked.

Implications for Marketers

For managers interested in seeing both environmental and business returns from their investment in environmentally friendly products and policies, the results are clear. Creating the right appeal is key to C. By aligning an appeal that signals self-interest on the part of the consumers in public settings – like a traditional retail environment – managers may be sabotaging their own environmental initiatives. Conversely, when communicating in more private consumption setting, such as television or internet, managers should play to consumers’ self-interest rather than their desire to do good.

Additional Resources

Reports and Articles

Eco-labels or sustainability ratings can be an important guide for purchasing sustainable products. But not all rating systems are equally effective. 

Maya Fischhoff
Thought Leaders

Make environmental issues as relevant and personal as access to medicine or freedom from discrimination.

Timothy Devinney
Research Insight

How much is enough when it comes to CSR? This examination is based on the principles and views of Peter Drucker, and his concept of "bounded goodness."

Leo Wong