University of Texas at Austin

Monday, August 23, 2010

Consumers are Wary of Green Products, but Unwilling to Admit It, Say Researchers

People say they want to buy 'green' products, but don't necessarily do it, Texas business professors found.

People say they want to buy 'green' products, but don't necessarily do it, Texas business professors found.

I know I’ve done this:

I’ve looked at cleaning products on the shelf at Target or Walmart and seen the ones with natural ingredients. And I’ve wondered, “Can they really get the job done? Can they get stains out as well as chemicals engineered for that very purpose?”

I usually pull the usual “industry strength” cleanser off the shelf, put it in the cart and head home to do battle with those stubborn stains.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.

In their recent study published in the Journal of Marketing (opens PDF), Julie Irwin and Raj Raghunathan, professors at the McCombs School of Business, point out that while 40 percent of consumers say they are willing to buy green products, only 4 percent actually follow through.

Co-authors of the study were Michael Luchs at the College of William and Mary and Rebecca Walker Naylor at Ohio State University.

Business professors Julie Irwin and Raj Raghunathan says marketers need to stress the effectiveness of their green products.

Business professors Julie Irwin and Raj Raghunathan says marketers need to stress the effectiveness of their green products.

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 their children’s shorts?

“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,” Raghunathan says.

He says consumers think green products are not as effective or strong, but they feel they have to voice support for green products, so they say they would buy a green product if it were available.

“But,” Raghunathan says, “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.

So what’s a marketer of green products to do?

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,” Irwin says. “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 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 introduce green products must be careful about consumer research, Irwin and Raghunathan say.

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,” Raghunathan says.

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