Shoppers choose green products in public, cheap ones in private

shoppers choose green in public, cheap in privateWhen someone's watching do you pick up the environmentally-safe dishwashing liquid and compact fluorescent light bulbs? But when no one's around scarf fried pork rinds and hose the dirt off your driveway?

Don't feel bad; you are definitely not alone. A new survey from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota tells us that in public people like to buy green products to appear altruistic or concerned about the environment, but if alone or online, will forgo what's green for better value, comfort or convenience.

His experiment was done in a controlled environment that may or may not mirror our society (students who read reports on going green being considered higher status tended to choose green products, while less likely to do so if shopping online.) However, I think most shoppers today -- especially in this recession -- are forgoing green to save green, as in money.

Susan Marleau, 43, a mother of a 17-month-old boy in San Jose, Calif. said that she generally shops organic and green for her family, but admits if she's running low on cash her habits change.

"If we're really cash-strapped we won't buy organic fruits or vegetables because they cost more," she said. "Usually things like bananas or lettuce." Marleau once subscribed to an online organic delivery service, but has now canceled it. However, she says buying organic wasn't to appear altruistic, but to get the best foods for her child. "But [the produce] was so large, he barely ate one-fourth of a banana."

Many shoppers are like Marleau, according to Vladas Griskevicius, of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, not likely to use more sustainable products when there wasn't a benefit, public or private.

However, Griskevicius goes one step further in his report, writing that shoppers were more likely to buy energy-efficient light bulbs from the store, but cheaper and less energy-efficient types online.

In "Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation," which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he ran an experiment with 168 college students, some of which began using green products as status symbols.

"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," Griskevicius, an assistant professor of marketing, said. "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."

He uses the idea of celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Leonardo Di Caprio driving a Toyota Prius, a not-too attractive hybrid car with stellar gas mileage, when they could afford something more expensive or luxurious because it promotes them as environmentalists. "When you publicly display your environmentally-friendly nature, you send the signal that you care," he said.

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