Do Green Products Make for Unethical Shoppers?

Do Green Products Make for Unethical Shoppers?

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?

Well, leaving aside that sticky question -- one that my boss, Joel Makower, has explored and debunked many times over the years (see "Green Consumers' Irrational Exuberance" in particular, but also here and here for more) -- there's yet another study about green consumers' habits out today. This one brings more of the same, as well as a small taste of something fresh, but that may not be a bad thing after all.

The new survey, by Harris Interactive, asked 3,110 adults about their green habits. The findings? Not surprisingly, the respondents said they are engaging in some green activities, including:

• Installed more energy-efficient light bulbs (63%)
• Purchased energy-efficient appliances (36%)
• Started paying bills online (46%)
• Switched to paperless financial statements (40%)

Those results, and those actions, are not nothing, to be sure; but they're obviously a far cry from an indication of the wholesale greening of the marketplace. And the Harris poll owns up to as much, including the findings that:

Only small minorities of adults always or often:
• Walk or ride a bicycle instead of driving or using public transport (15%)
• Carpool or use public transport (16%)
• Purchase all natural products (18%)

So far, so much the same old story. But a little twist that makes this slightly more interesting crossed my desk late last week:

It may be better for society if shoppers avoid green products.

According to research conducted by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, buying green products can actually make us worse people.

From the abstract of the report, available for download here [PDF], and to be published in the journal Psychological Science:

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.

Did you get that? Buying green products could make you lie, cheat and steal!

The study used three experiments to explore the theory. In the first, particpants were asked to rate people who buy green or organic products on their cooperativeness, altruism, and ethics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, green shoppers scored highly on all three measures.
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The second experiment used the idea of "priming" individuals to think about the environment through exposure to green products in a store or purchasing those products; participants then were then placed in an "unrelated" task measuring their willingness to share money with a fellow participant. It turns out that folks who bought the greener products were less likely to share the same amount of money than those who simply saw the products on the shelves.

The authors write: "Green products embody social considerations such that mere exposure to them increases subsequent pro-social behavior. However, acting upon one's values establishes moral credential that can subsequently license deviating behavior."

The third study, much more complex but similarly gauging exposure to green goods vs. acquisition of green goods, and subsequent willingness to steal or cheat, found green-goods buyers nearly 10 percent more likely to lie in order to earn more money than those who simply saw the green goods on the shelves.

How does buying green actually make you a worse person (in theory, at least)? The idea is that "priming" people to think about the environment can subconsciously encourage people to take greener behaviors, just as showing diners pictures of a fancy restaurant leads to better table manners or -- I kid you not -- exposure to the Apple Computer logo can make you more creative.

So hinting at study participants that there are some products with lower impact than others gives them a nudge toward thinking about their own impact, and leads to more socially responsible behaviors (again, in theory). But why does buying green tarnish that halo?

The idea there is that people are more likely to do good deeds when they have recently been bad; simply put, guilt is a social motivator. But buying green products is a good deed, and thus people who shop green feel better about themselves and thus more easily justify those little slights -- in the third experiment above, when individuals were led to think that fibbing on exam results would lead to slightly higher pay for participating in the test, green shoppers did so -- making 36 cents more than those people simply primed with green ideas.

Here's what it boils down to, per the authors:

While mere exposure can activate concepts related to social responsibility and ethical conduct and induce corresponding behaviors, purchasing green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviors by establishing moral credentials. Thus, green products do not necessarily make us better people.

This study may end up holding as much water as all those other green consumer studies that showed us that everyone really is buying nothing but non-toxic, locally made goods, but at least for now, it's a breath of fresh air to think that perhaps it's OK for people to steer clear of green products.

Now, please excuse me while I go stare at the Apple logo and boost my creativity for a while...

Shopping cart photo CC-licensed by Flickr user schizoform.