After years on the sidelines, sustainability seems poised to become a significant market trend, but two researchers from the University of Texas at Austin say marketers should carefully evaluate consumers’ enthusiasm for sustainability.
It turns out that despite all the positive vibes, more than a few of us are still skeptical about the strength — and durability of sustainable products, but we are afraid to let anyone know.
In their recent study published in the Journal of Marketing, Julie Irwin and Raj Raghunathan point out that while 40 percent of consumers SAY they are willing to buy green products, only four percent actually follow through.
Apparently, while we may love to give the impression that environmental friendliness is a factor in our shopping decisions, many of us would rather choose effectiveness or durability and as a rule consumers suspect that green products don’t quite meet those standards of strength.
Irwin and Raghunathan found in their study that there is a “sustainability penalty” levied on products for which durability and strength are key decision factors. So while we may be happy to buy eco-friendly baby shampoo, purchasing similarly green laundry detergent is not as attractive. Consumers worry, will it be strong enough to get the grass stains out of my child’s shorts?
In Raghunathan’s words:
“In one part of our study we looked at the actual usage and consumption of ‘Green’ (vs. ‘normal’) hand sanitizers during the swine flu craze, and we found that people were more prone to using the non-green version since they thought it would be stronger—but this tendency changed when the user felt that someone was observing their choice, in which case, they shifted to using the ‘Green’ version.
“We discovered (1) consumers think that green products are not as effective or strong, but (2) they feel they have to voice support for green products, so they say things like, ‘I would definitely buy a green product if it were available.” But this support of green products seems motivated by a desire to appear like they are being good citizens rather than because they actually do want to buy such products.”
People expect tires made from recycled materials to be less durable than other tires and green detergent to clean less well. An energy efficient bulb may be expected to burn less brightly and gallon-for-gallon, ethanol-based-fuel may be expected to provide less energy. To be successful, energy-efficient or so-called green products need to overcome the penalty that consumers levy on them.
The researchers say one way of overcoming the sustainability penalty is to explicitly tout the strength-related attributes (effectiveness, strength, durability, etc.) of the sustainable product.
“As we found in one of our studies, when a sustainable tire is explicitly presented as ‘guaranteed strong,’ people were as receptive to it as they were to a non-sustainable tire,” says Irwin. “We also found that consumers want to know that other consumers have chosen the product. Simply making clear that the product is a best seller can help alleviate fears about it.”
Raghunathan suggests that a third way to overcome the sustainability penalty is to hide the fact it is green. Of course, that has the disadvantage of not attracting consumers who do want to patronize products that are sustainable.
In any case, marketers looking to launch green products must be careful about consumer research, say Irwin and Raghunathan. Asking consumers directly about their opinions of, and attitudes toward, sustainable products are likely to overinflate the potential demand.
“People are unwilling to openly admit they think sustainable products are not strong,” concludes Raghunathan.