Shoppers More Likely To Buy Sustainable Products That Don’t Look Eco-Friendly: Study

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Could brands sell more of their sustainable products if they make them appear less eco-friendly? One study suggests the answer is: yes. Researchers from the UK have found that highlighting the “greenness” of items may put shoppers off buying them, due to some consumer perceptions about these products being less effective than their conventional counterparts. 

According to a study conducted by the University of East Anglia and the University of Leeds, companies that want to sell their eco-friendly products to more consumers should consider making these items appear less green. The findings of the paper, published in the Journal of Advertising, appear to contradict common logic—that increasingly eco-conscious consumers are looking for products touted as sustainable. 

But digging deeper into consumer perceptions, the researchers say that many mainstream shoppers continue to believe that sustainable products are less effective than conventional ones. So marketing items as eco-friendly could deter these shoppers from buying them at all. 

Persuading mainstream consumers

While consumer polls often suggest that people are more willing than ever before to look for sustainable alternatives in every product category, researchers say that when it comes to actual purchases rather than a willingness to buy, many are still sticking to conventional products. According to the paper, this is because consumers still uphold the belief that sustainable alternatives are less effective. 

The findings of the study indicate that when product-related attributes are marketed prominently or “explicitly” in advertising terms, consumers often find these claims incompatible with the benefits associated with the product category. For instance, if greener washing detergents are branded with the words “non-toxic” or “biodegradable”, shoppers might begin associating the environmentally-friendly features with being at odds with the ability of the product to clean dirty dishes. 

“Given consumers’ perceptions of poorly performing green products, persuading them to alter their consumption habits remains a difficult task for marketers,” says Dr. Bryan Ursey, who led the research. “While firms have often attempted to enhance their environmental credentials by emphasizing a new product’s green attributes, we show that this may in fact have negative consequences.”

Subtle messaging is more effective

What brands should do to promote their sustainable products, according to the research, is use more subtle or “implicit” messaging. Instead of actively showcasing the products’ greenness, brands should use more traditional promoting, highlighting how the product can meet the functionality, quality, and effectiveness that consumers expect about the item. 

“Our findings show that it would be sensible to match the advertisement and its information to the product being marketed, in terms of both its associated category and the optionality of the attribute,” Dr. Ursey explains. “In addition, as green products are often associated with poorer performance, firms would do well to tailor their advertising to meet the expected benefits associated with a given product category.”

One example the study gave is how some electric car manufacturers have managed to capture the mainstream market by highlighting the performance-related benefits of its product, rather than focusing on how EVs are more fuel-efficient or less emissions-intensive. Makers such as Tesla have taken this approach, promoting the acceleration time or handling ability of their cars, while the green emphasis that Toyota uses for its Prius hybrid car hasn’t translated into the same consumer perception about the car’s effectiveness. 

Dr. Ursey believes that his research should inform the way companies decide to appeal to broader swathes of the market, and make sustainable alternatives more widely adopted. 

“Our results also suggest that optionality could play a role in determining green behaviour. Informing consumers about and providing them with reasonable options may do more to encourage green behaviour, as they would be acting out of their own volition, rather than being forced to.”

All images courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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