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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Being seen as green
March 21, 2010 - 8:39pm

I was reading an article recently. From the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I read this kind of thing all the time. Really, Nothing better to wake up the gray cells over a hot cup of coffee and a cold bowl of corn flakes.

Titled "Going green to be seen: Status, reputation, and conspicuous conservation" and written by a psychologist and two marketing profs, the main conclusion was that the purchase of perceptably green products is motivated by a desire to appear conscientious and altruistic, signaling that "a person has the resources to afford such a reputation, which is important in attaining things that are difficult to purchase with money directly (e.g., friendship, love)." Based on this, the authors go on to conclude that "knowing that a desire for status can spur self-sacrifice also presents a powerful tool for motivating prosocial and proenvironmental action."

So, in a nutshell, the researchers are saying that since "green" goods are less useful and/or more expensive than more typical products (hence, their purchase requires a degree of self-sacrifice), a key way to induce purchasers to make such counter-economic decisions is to appeal to their snobbery. Which might sound good until I get about half-way through that first cup of coffee, but doesn't hold up much after that point.

See, the first problem is the basic premise that the buying patterns of "green" consumers to date are in any way indicative of the demand patterns for "green" products in future. If they are, we're all in trouble. Because the article is right. Many purchases to date have been made with motivations related to status -- either in the mind of the purchaser him/herself, or in the eyes of the purchaser's intended audience. And, to the extent that those products have cost a little more or worked less well, they've been bought only by people who can afford to pay a bit extra or get a bit less. Two sides of the same coin. Which is OK, if you have a coin. But less OK if you don't.

A recent AP article (I've misplaced the byline, but there are probably many such) pointed out that the economy is in fact recovering, but only if you look at things from an investment point of view. Investors are starting to see a little more return (which is to say, a positive return at all). But things look very different from an employment perspective. Economists love to point out that employment is a lagging indicator. Upturns in employment trail behind upturns in economic activity. Which is just another way of saying that economics is not the study of workers. Which is to say, it's not the study of most of us.

And any marketing plan which is intended to sell "green" products to the average (employee, not investor) American consumer better not be based on the idea of getting less for more and making it up in status. BMW might be able to boost sales by boasting that it has the most ecologically friendly luxury car line. But not a lot of Kia Reo's or Ford F-150 work trucks are going to be bought with the idea of paying any more than absolutely necessary.

Status can be a motivator for the early adopters of any technology, but the status motivation is limited to a small slice of any market. And if "green" products are going to make any measurable impact on the sustainability of the ecology, a small slice of the market isn't going to do the job.

You can read the article and decide for yourself. It's by V. Griskevicius, J. Tybur and B. Van der Bergh, and it's in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 98(3). 392-404. Available on newsstands everywhere.



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