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When Consumers Will Spend More to Get Less

When status is important, we may buy green products with inferior attributes—especially when they cost more.

One of the most successful green products, the Toyota Prius, is not luxurious. Yet people buy it—at a price well above non-green cars with comparable specifications—because it “makes a statement” about them (according to a New York Times poll). What motivates consumers to pay more when they’re getting less?

A possible explanation: green products allow consumers to be seen as altruistic. While many green products cost more, perform worse or possess fewer luxury attributes, they’re generally better for society. Throughout history, “giving” behaviour by individuals has been associated with status and reputation.

Is green a status symbol?

Vladas Griskevicius (University of Minnesota), Joshua Tybur (at the University of New Mexico at the time) and Bram Van den Bergh(Rotterdam School of Management) delved deeper into this explanation, and investigated whether people buy green in pursuit of status through three experiments.

Experiment 1:
Participants were primed to desire social status by reading a story about getting a promotion. Then they chose between green and conventional versions of a product.

Both versions were the same price, but non-green products had more luxurious attributes. For all three products (cars, soap and dishwashers), the likelihood of choosing the green was higher for people primed to think about status.

For example, the chance of someone in the status group saying they’d buy the green car was 54.5 per cent, while in the control group it was just 37.2 per cent.

Experiment 2:
Participants were told they were either shopping online or in a store. When shopping in public, being primed to think of status meant consumers were more likely to choose the green version of the backpack, batteries or a table lamp. When shopping from the privacy of their computer, however, the opposite occurred: individuals thinking about status were less likely to buy green products.

Experiment 3:
The researchers varied the price of the green and non-green products. In the control group, they found participants chose the green product more frequently when it was cheaper. But in the status-primed group, people chose the green product more frequently when it cost more than the alternative.

Tap into status & self interest to drive environmental behaviour.

When status is important, we may buy green products with inferior attributes—especially when they cost more. And we would “go green” more frequently when we know others will see us do it.

While green products may be less convenient or luxurious, they enable consumers to appear socially-oriented in a visible way. This research suggests the effect doesn’t hold true only for major lifestyle purchases like cars: people exhibited similar behaviour when buying soap.

While status motives have traditionally been associated with self-interested behaviour, this research suggests they might actually drive environmental behaviour. Marketers can leverage this effect by connecting green products to status, particularly when the products are relatively expensive.

Consider the costing strategy for your green product.

Try using celebrity endorsements or linking to prestigious events when designing marketing campaigns for expensive green products. And ensure people can prominently display their purchase or highlight their self-sacrificing behaviour in public. Don’t use status to sell green products when they are cheaper than the alternative—paying less for green won’t help consumers climb the social ladder.

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  • Pam Laughland

    Pam Laughland was Managing Director at the Network for Business Sustainability from 2011 to 2017, and previously was the organization's Knowledge Manager. Prior to joining NBS, Pamela held research positions at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Statistics Canada, and the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ivey Business Journal and the International Journal of Biotechnology. She holds an MSc in Resource Economics from the University of Guelph.

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