Why people shun some eco-friendly products

Want to convince customers to buy your new and improved green product? Don’t tell them you made it environmentally-friendly on purpose. A new study suggests that when a company intentionally makes a product greener, people assume that the product also becomes lower-quality. However, if the product unexpectedly becomes greener as a result of other changes, consumers are more likely to buy it.

“[I]t would seem that intending to make a product better should be preferred to unintentionally doing so,” the authors write in the Journal of Consumer Research. “However, the present studies demonstrate the opposite effect.”

In one experiment, the team gave 303 people descriptions of eco-friendly dish soap and drain cleaner. One group was told that the manufacturer had made the products greener on purpose; a second group was told that the products had become more environmentally-friendly as an “unintended side effect” of efforts to improve the cleaner’s formula; and a third group didn’t receive any information about whether the environment-related changes were intentional or not.

People who thought that the green improvements were made on purpose were less likely than those in the “accidental” group to say they wanted to buy the product, the team found. They also gave the product a lower quality rating and were more likely to assume that the company had sacrificed the product’s performance in favor of sustainability.

This pattern didn’t hold true for all types of manufacturing changes. In another experiment with 400 people, participants were told that the cleaning product company had developed a new fair trade agreement with its overseas workers. Whether the company deliberately made these improvements or were forced to by local law didn’t have much effect on people’s interest in buying the product. That’s probably because companies usually change the product itself to make it greener, whereas adopting fair trade practices is seen as a separate process, the authors say. Roberta Kwok | 4 September 2014

Source: Newman, G.E., M. Gorlin, and R. Dhar. 2014. When going green backfires: How firm intentions shape the evaluation of socially beneficial product enhancements. Journal of Consumer Research doi: 10.1086/677841.

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