Encouraging shoppers to view themselves as ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ makes them more likely to buy sustainable products.
This psychological effect is at the heart of a recent study, which suggests when it comes to getting people to buy green, simply labelling a product as ‘eco-friendly’ isn’t really enough. Instead, using language that actively taps into the consumer’s identity, such as ‘this product is for green shoppers’ or ‘I think green’, makes people more inclined to purchase sustainable goods.
The researchers, led by the University of Chile and writing in Nature Communications, explored this phenomenon by carrying out four separate shopping experiments in different scenarios, to test the durability of their design.
The participants, of whom there were several thousand, variously bought items from a pretend online store, a real online store, a physical shop, and via a real email marketing campaign. The buyers could choose between regular products or eco-friendly products. But crucially, some of those eco-friendly products were advertised without specific descriptions, while others were labeled to highlight their sustainability traits in a way that actively brought the consumer’s aspirations into the equation – such as ‘this product is for green shoppers’ or ‘those who care about the environment buy [insert product]”.
The eco-friendly products up for grabs in the different experiments were variously light bulbs, reusable bags, and energy-efficient white goods such as dryers and washing machines.
Across all four experiments, despite the variety of settings and products up for sale, a strikingly similar pattern emerged: shoppers were more likely to choose and purchase eco-friendly items when the product in question had the aspirational labelling. Yet, if the product was eco-friendly but didn’t exhibit the targeted labelling, purchase rates were lower. The researchers found that the consumer-targeted labeling increased green purchases by an average 7%—which amounted to a huge increase in green sales. “This technique works by signaling to individuals that they are “green” if they buy sustainable products,” says Daniel Schwartz, an assistant Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Chile, and lead author on the paper.
To explore the true impact of these labels, the researchers also tested how price discounts might alter consumers’ purchasing choices. This revealed something very intriguing: when green-labeled products were advertised along with a discount, consumers were actually less likely to purchase those green products than if they were simply advertised without the discount.
The researchers hypothesize that this unusual effect occurs because to aspirational green shoppers who would usually pick an eco-friendly product expressly to assert their green identity, the discount makes it more difficult to honestly attribute their eco-friendly purchase to a concern for the environment. And so, for individuals keen on building and maintaining their ‘green’ identity, this makes the product less appealing to buy.
These findings suggest that when marketing green products, more attention should be paid to the nuanced psychology of green consumerism, in order to encourage more eco-friendly purchases. Specifically, the study underscores how labelling that helps consumers actually see their aspirations reflected in the products they buy could be a more effective and powerful way to make more people go green. “From a practical perspective, the green identity label could be a promising and cost-effective tool to encourage sustainable consumption,” says Schwartz. “The overall effect may depend on each context; whether people care about the environment, whether there are price discounts, or whether products or behavior are visible to others.”
One caveat of the study was that the consumers who participated were mostly educated and wealthy—a segment of the public that the researchers intentionally targeted, because they say that the data shows these groups are the most likely to purchase green. That might also explain why the discounts made less impact on buyers.
Of course, the bigger, long-term challenge is to make eco-friendly consumption more accessible, so that everyone gets to make these choices—not just wealthy people with more purchasing power. But the value of the study is that it gives insight into how to start more effectively targeting at least one part of the market. And, by centering the role that psychology plays in consumer behaviors, it opens up new potential avenues for encouraging more green consumption across the market, as a whole.