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When Do Consumers Say “No” to Green?

Can a product’s sustainability—or lack thereof—influence how consumers view its other attributes? In which contexts can sustainability hurt sales?

Many companies market ethical or green products hoping socially conscious consumers will pay more for them, or that sustainability attributes will give their product an edge over the competition. But research has shown that many issues affect whether consumers actually buy sustainable products—and according to the United Nations Environment Programme, only four per cent actually purchase ethically, even though 40 per cent say they will.

We know sustainable products may be left on the shelves if consumers feel they have to pay a premium for them. But can a product’s sustainability (or lack thereof) influence how consumers view its other attributes? In which contexts can sustainability hurt sales?

Michael Luchs (College of William and Mary), Rebecca Walker Naylor(Ohio State University), Julie Irwin, and Rajagopal Raghunathan (both at the University of Texas) suggest the answer depends on which attributes consumers value in a particular context. Sometimes, the benefit of sustainability is overshadowed to the point where consumers would actually prefer to buy a less sustainable product.

The researchers conducted five studies assessing consumers’ preferences for strength or gentleness in products, and how a product’s sustainability affects consumers’ perceptions of the product and its other attributes.

First, consumers link more sustainable products with gentle attributes like “safe” and less sustainable products with strength attributes like “harsh.” This is consistent with messaging suggesting being tough or successful isn’t consistent with being ethical—for example, the sayings “nice guys finish last” or “to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.”

Researchers also found consumers value sustainability when they’re looking for gentle products like baby shampoo. But sustainability can be detrimental when consumers seek tough products like car shampoo.

How consumers behave also depends on who’s watching. In one experiment, participants were more likely to actually use a green hand sanitizer over a conventional one when they knew they were being observed. Conversely, they were more likely to use a less sustainable hand sanitizer when they were alone. This is yet another example of the desirability bias leading people to behave more ethically when in public.

This may be great news if you’re selling baby shampoo. But what’s a marketer of athletic shoes or trucks to do?

Mitigate by explicitly painting green products as “strong.” In one experiment, consumers perceived a green brand of tires to be more durable and more likely to sell when the tire was accompanied with a “guaranteed strong” message.

If you’re playing in a product category where being “tough” counts, try associating sustainable products with an established brand name, as Clorox did with its Green Works line. If you’re in a “gentle” product category, play up your sustainability. Burt’s Bees line of personal care products has built a successful brand by emphasizing ethicality and gentleness.

Luchs, Michael, Rebecca Walker Naylor, Julie Irwin and Rajagopal Raghunathan. (2010). The sustainability liability: Potential negative effects of ethicality on product preference. Journal of Marketing, 74: 18-31.

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  • Pam Laughland
    Managing Director
    Network for Business Sustainability
    MSc in Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph

    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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