Green Purchases Can Be Motivated by Desire for Higher Status

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, March 16, 2010 (ENS) – People will forgo luxury for green products when they shop in public, buying green because they want to be seen as caring altruists, according to a new marketing study by an international research team. But in private, when shopping alone online, people choose products that are comfortable and luxurious instead.

The research findings suggest that status competition can promote pro-environmental behavior.

“Green purchases are often motivated by status,” says Vladas Griskevicius, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “People want to be seen as being altruistic. Nothing communicates that better than by buying green products that often cost more and are of lower quality but benefit the environment for everyone.”

Prius driver and friends (Photo by Ladyhawke365)

In the new paper “Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation,” Griskevicius and co-authors argue that green products can demonstrate to others that their owners are voluntarily willing and able to incur the cost of owning a product that benefits the environment (and society), but that may be inferior for personal use.”

“Many green purchases are rooted in the evolutionary idea of competitive altruism, the notion that people compete for status by trying to appear more altruistic,” says Griskevicius.

“Nowhere is this clearer than the highly visible and easily identifiable Toyota Prius, which essentially functions as a mobile, self-promoting billboard for pro-environmentalism,” the authors say.

“By purchasing a Toyota Prius, for example, a person can signal to others that he is a pro-social, rather than a pro-self, individual,” the study states. “That is, instead of buying a conventional and more luxurious car that would benefit only him, the Prius owner instead voluntarily chooses to benefit the environment for everyone – even though this act means forgoing the luxury of having a car with more features, comfort, or performance.”

“A reputation for being a caring individual gives you status and prestige. When you publicly display your environmentally friendly nature, you send the signal that you care,” says Griskevicius.

His teaching and research utilize theoretical principles from evolutionary biology to study consumers’ often unconscious preferences, decision processes, and behavioral strategies.

For the study, 168 students at a large public university – 65 males, 103 females – participated for course credit. They came to the lab in small groups and sat at computers between partitions.

Status motives were elicited by having test participants read a short story. A group of control participants read a different short story that did not elicit status motivation.

Participants then made a series of choices between more luxurious non-green versus less-luxurious green versions of three products – a car, a household cleaner, and a dishwasher.

The non-green product was superior on dimensions of luxury and performance, while the green product was superior on the pro-environmental dimension.

In the absence of status motives, all three non-green products were more desirable than their green counterparts.

The study also showed that status motivates increased desirability of green products especially when such products cost more relative to non-green products.

“When you are motivated by status, you will forgo luxury features to obtain an inferior green product that tells others that you care,” Griskevicius says.

For entrepreneurs and companies looking to capture the green market, the key may be getting the product to be purchased and used in public, the study concludes.

The paper “Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation,” published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” was co-authored by Joshua Tybur of the University of New Mexico and Bram Van den Bergh at the Rotterdam School of Management in The Netherlands.

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