The Black Side of Green Shoppers

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Having just posted an entry about toilet tissue couture, my attention lit on a story about potential perverse effects of green shopping. The story in Greenbiz.com began with this lede:

We see more than our fair share of green consumer studies around these parts; it’s become one of our favorite bugaboos: This study or the next one finds that customers say they’re 100 percent likely to buy green products 100 percent of the time.

And yet, when you walk the aisles of your local office supply company, there’s nary a ream of 100 percent post-consumer recycled content paper to be found. What gives?

Why the focus on our bathroom functions? But that’s not the point here. The article is very provocative. Noting the now familiar lack of consistency between what “green” shoppers say and what they do, the reporter points to a rather fascinating academic paper that argues, based on empirical data and some theory, that green shoppers are more likely to engage in unethical behavior than people merely exposed to green products. Here is the abstract of their paper.

Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

Both the Greenbiz article and the academic paper by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto make very good reading. The bottom line for me is the finding that humans are more than the standard economists’ picture of a disconnected, internal set of preferences that control our actions. We are deeply embedded in the surrounding culture and derive whatever it is that controls our behavior from its structure and our accumulated experience. The money quote from their paper: “Thus, green products do not necessarily make us better people.” Too bad, all the NGOs and marketing people will have to go back to the drawing board.

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